Australia's Best Animal Encounters
At the furrier and friendlier end of the Animal Kingdom hops the quokka, a tiny West Australian marsupial that looks like a cat-sized kangaroo with a grin permanently etched across its face. Often dubbed the world’s happiest animal and famously comfortable with approaching admirers, the majority of the vulnerable quokka population resides on Rottnest Island, a haven of turquoise water and white sand beaches best explored by bike and just 45 minutes on the ferry from Fremantle.
Sun-deprived residents of Australia’s southern states aren’t the only group that migrates north each winter, with thousands of whales making their annual 10,000km journey from Antarctica to the warm waters of Queensland to mate, give birth, and raise their calves. YHA has more than a dozen hostels dotted along the east coast’s ‘Humpback Highway’, which ends at Hervey Bay, where whales rest up before the long trip home. Whale Watching Sydney’s custom-built vessels, the ocean views of the YHA Port Elliot balcony, the headlands of Albany on WA’s south coast, and spot whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef are other great vantage points.
Aficionados of B-grade 1990s cinema might remember the film Flipper, where a young Elijah Wood befriends a dolphin during his summer vacation with his uncle Paul Hogan, before *spoiler alert* the title character and his pod of pals save the teenage hobbit from a shark attack. We can’t promise anything that exciting will happen when you meet dolphins in Monkey Mia, a serene resort 900km north of Perth, but we can promise the opportunity to spot them. You can also frolic with Flipper on a day trip from Perth (September to May), or check out the pod of 130 bottlenose dolphins that call Port Stephens home 12 months a year.
With the exception of Looney Tunes cartoons, Tasmania is the only place on earth you can find these carnivorous little critters . . . although they’ve became endangered after decades of hunting and the spread of a debilitating facial tumour among the rare species. The Tassie devil has become so endangered, in fact, that the world’s first ‘unzoo’ has been set up to help save them – including no boundary fence, wildlife habitats with native vegetation, and the chance to come face to face with the ferocious marsupials in the ‘Devil Den’, an underground see-through dome that pops out of the ground for a devil’s eye perspective of the world.
Not every occupant of the waters around the Eyre Peninsula wants to tear you limb from limb like a turkey at Christmas dinner, though, with sea lions providing an alternative dive option that’s much gentler on the blood pressure. Take a cruise from Port Lincoln to Hopkins or Langdon Island to discover exactly why these endangered mammals – unique to South Australia and Western Australia – are nicknamed the “puppies of the sea”, thanks to their inquisitive, playful nature.
Like the seven dwarfs returning from a long day down the mines, hundreds of Little Penguins waddle their way across the Phillip Island sand every evening after a long day’s fishing, producing perhaps Victoria’s most adorable tourist attraction. The 300-seat viewing platform at Summerland Beach gives admirers the perfect perspective of the famous Penguin Parade – either a bird’s eye view from elevated viewing platforms or an underground viewing experience that places you nose-to-beak with the stars of the show – as they return to their sand dune burrows at sunset.
You’d expect a place called Kangaroo Island (best accessed via Adelaide) to have a few roos hopping around, and you’d be right – Australia’s third largest island is crawling with its own subspecies of kangaroo as well as thriving populations of wallabies, koalas, echidnas, possums, fur seals, sea lions, dolphins, bandicoots, goannas, bats, frogs, and an array of birdlife. Back on the mainland there are more kangaroos than people, meaning you’ll bump into our national symbol everywhere. The National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, and frankly most of the NSW North Coast are great places to catch a glimpse as well.