Nature was inspired when it created Australia. There are animals you’ll see nowhere else and plants that will amaze you. Australia is one of the most diverse countries on the planet, home to more than one million species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Among the most well known of these are the koala, the wombat, the kangaroo, the laughing kookaburra, and the egg-laying platypus – a creature so odd-looking that sceptical European scientists thought it was several different animals sewn together.
Some of Australia’s unique animals and birds are easy to spot, even in the major capital cities. It’s not unusual to see a possum climbing up a city lamp post in the evening, or giant fruit bats taking off from their roosts in city parks. Pelicans, sacred ibis, colourful parrots, and cockatoos look right at home too.
Within easy distance of every city are several national parks and wildlife reserves. This isn’t surprising when you consider that Australia boasts 516 national parks, 145 marine parks, 2,700 designated conservation areas, and 33 Indigenous Protected Areas. There are also 15 natural World Heritage Sites, ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to the Tasmanian Wilderness.
One of the most iconic Australian animals is the kangaroo. There are 63 species of kangaroo in Australia including different kinds of wallabies, tree-kangaroos, wallaroos, pademelons and the quokka – a cat-size marsupial that lives on some of the smaller islands off the coast of Western Australia.
While some of these animals are rare or elusive, others are quite common. It’s not unusual to see lots of powerful red kangaroos bounding besides your car as you travel through Australia’s Outback. You can often easily see big grey kangaroos in native grassland beside the road too.
In some places such as Booderee National Park, south of Sydney – they wander right up to you. While at Pebbly Beach, between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast, kangaroos graze on the grass edging the pristine beach and casually hop among the picnic rugs.
One of the best places in Australia to see a large range of animals and birds up close is Kangaroo Island, in South Australia. While kangaroos may have given the island its name, in the space of one day, you can easily spot koalas, wallabies, goannas, echidnas, brush-tailed possums, and platypus. You can quickly tick off dozens of the 270 species of bird found here, including perhaps the rare glossy black cockatoo.
Other Kangaroo Island highlights include watching fairy penguins waddling home after a day out at sea, taking a swim with the Island’s resident pods of dolphins, and walking beside hundreds of rare Australian sealions as they laze on the sand.
While Kangaroo Island is the perfect spot for observing koalas in the wild, you might want to spare a thought for those that end up needing a caring hand. The Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie is the world’s first hospital dedicated solely to the care and preservation of koalas.
Then there’s Phillip Island in Victoria, home to the Koala Conservation Centre. This was set up for research and breeding purposes, and you can get quite close to these cuddly creatures. Phillip Island is also world famous for its Penguin Parade.
Another great place to spot koalas in the wild is beside the Great Ocean Road, one of the most spectacular scenic drives in Australia. You can also see koalas in their natural habitat around Port Stephens, north of Sydney too.
Beautiful Port Stephens is also home to resident pods of dolphins, and several companies operate dolphin-watching tours and whale-watching tours.
The most prolific whales in our waters are the southern right whale and the humpback whale. These pass along the western, southern and eastern coastlines during their annual migration. Some of the most popular whale watching spots include Hervey Bay in Queensland, Warrnambool in south-western Victoria, Victor Harbour in South Australia, and Byron Bay, Eden, and Narooma in New South Wales.
From June to November you can see plenty of humpback whales migrating northwards along the Western Australian coastline to shelter in Camden Sound on the Kimberley coast. They also congregate off Broome, where the females give birth. In September you could head to Dunsborough to see blue whales and their calves in the calm waters of Geographe Bay.
Between early April and early July each year marine adventurers can try snorkelling with the world’s largest fish – the whale shark. Ningaloo Reef, on Western Australia’s Coral Coast, is one of only a few places in the world where this is possible.
Wild dolphins are common right along the Australian coast, and there are plenty of opportunities to swim with them at Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, Baird Bay on the South Australian coast, Port Stephens and Huskisson in New South Wales and at Rockingham near Perth.
One of the most famous dolphin habitats is Monkey Mia on the shores of World Heritage-listed Shark Bay, in Western Australia. The wild bottlenose dolphins around here have been swimming around the ankles of tourists every day for the past forty years.
If crocodiles are more your scene then head up to the Northern Territory to search for saltwater crocodiles in Kakadu National Park. Kakadu’s many habitats, which include lily-spotted wetlands and vast plains, support more than 280 species of birds, or about one-third of Australia’s bird species.
The most iconic of all Australia’s wildlife sanctuaries though is the Great Barrier Reef. Go snorkelling or diving in the tropical, clear waters and you’ll find yourself immersed in an environment shimmering of dazzling fish, colourful corals and sponges, dugongs, and green turtles.
Meanwhile, to get close to endangered Tasmanian Devils, make your way to Devils @ Cradle. At this sanctuary and breeding centre at Cradle Mountain, in north-west Tasmania, you can get up close to plenty of these noisy marsupial carnivores.