While a vacation that requires you to pack snow boots instead of sandals may seem a little backwards, it's easy to forget about near-freezing temperatures when you're photographing penguins and searching for snow leopards. Cold weather safaris take travelers to some of the most remote and breathtaking parts of the world, where they can encounter their favorite animals in as close range as possible. Travel to Canada's [Images] Magdalen Islands via helicopter, and you'll be treated to a view of majestic sandstone cliffs and miles of massive ice floes. But once you get back on land, the sights are even more astonishing as you find yourself standing among thousands of harp seals and their adorable pups.
Many cold weather safaris boast an itinerary that's packed full of outdoor activities, from sea kayaking to snowshoeing, and the combination of animals and adventure is proving to be a success. But make sure you book your vacation well in advance, since the opportunity to camp in Antarctica only a few feet away from thousands of emperor penguins isn't available year-round. In order to ensure that guests are guaranteed sightings of hundreds, or even thousands, of their favorite fauna, most travel companies only schedule cold weather safaris during certain months. Humpback whales can be seen off the coast of Greenland all year, but from June through September travelers have a chance to see not only humpbacks but killer, fin and minke whales all in one day.
"It really is an amazing opportunity to see wildlife in nature that is rarely seen outside of the zoo," says Mark Wexler, editorial director of National Wildlife Magazine.
Even though Wexler's a seasoned traveler, when it comes to wildlife expeditions he still hasn't forgotten the cruise that took him through Alaska's breathtaking fjords. "All along the coast there were brown bears, and they were feeding along the shore and just wandering around," Wexler says. "The boat came within just 50 yards of these guys -- it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Travelers interested in replicating Wexler's journey will find that it isn't too difficult, since Denali National Park is a major wildlife adventure destination. Alaska Adventures offers a week-long package that not only includes opportunities to see bear, moose and caribou, but the itinerary also boasts a river safari and a fjords cruise to ensure that travelers won't miss out on some of Alaska's grandest natural attractions.
But don't assume that every cold weather safari ensures sightings of dozens of animals. If you want to see antelopes, zebras and every creature in between then you might be a better match for an African safari. Costas Christ, global traveler editor and columnist for National Geographic Adventure magazine, emphasizes that it's important for travelers to understand that these trips are all about personal passions, while African safaris are about viewing wildlife on a larger scale. "If you're a person who's wanted to see penguins since you were a child, or have dreamed about seeing a wolf since you read Call of the Wild, you will not be let down," Christ says.
Genuine interest in the animal you're viewing is also important since many cold weather safaris offer educational sessions, and you don't want to be nodding off during wolf watching 101. Yellowstone's winter wolf retreat takes place on Lamar Ranch, a facility that's also equipped with classrooms, and travelers are able to get lessons from wolf biologists before heading out into the brisk February morning to watch the carnivores hunt and socialize. "We want our trip to be like watching a nature show," says Nathan Varney, a biologist and professional wildlife guide who leads the expedition with his wife, Linda Thurston. "You get to see wolves interacting with each other� what we really aim for is something that's a little more in-depth than just a glimpse of wolves running through the forest."
In addition to offering travelers a crash course in animal behavior, many cold weather safaris incorporate ecotourism into their trips so that guests have a chance to help protect species that are important to them. Every March, Natural Habitat Adventures offers a harp seal tour in Canada, and the winsome white seal pups provide a classic example of how ecotourism works. Although the pups are now renowned for their cuteness factor, they used to be famous for their fur, which was made into expensive coats and accessories. When the hunting of these pups was banned in the '80s, the income the Canadian government received from selling their fur was replaced with harp seal tourism dollars.
"Humans won't protect an area that we don't know about -- in order to educate people we need them to get out there and witness these events of nature so that when they come back home they'll want to do more to protect the planet," says Ben Bressler, founder of Natural Habitat Adventures, a travel company with a focus on ecotourism. "Our goal is to get people out there to see wildlife. It's not about being able to hike 20 miles or climb mountains."
Travelers who aren't afraid of rough terrain and high elevations should check out KarmaQuest's "Wintertime Quest for the Snow Leopard," which includes camping in Hemis National Park, India, at altitudes as high as 12,400 feet. Guests also lodge in local homes, an example of the reciprocal aspect of ecotourism, since part of the tour's proceeds go to the Snow Leopard Conservancy, which focuses on educating locals about the importance of preserving India's majestic snow leopard, which is often illegally hunted for its fur.
So while cold weather safaris don't come in a one-size-fits-all package, they do share one trait in common: a goal to bring those Animal Planet moments to life while preserving the habitats of threatened species for future animal lovers to enjoy.