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Southern Wildlife Encounters

Groups that want to encounter friends furry and feathered — and scaled and shelled — would do well to take a tour through the South.

With an array of unspoiled habitat capable of supporting a diversity of critters, the South offers a variety of exciting ways for groups to experience wildlife. Come face to face with some incredible creatures at these five wildlife-friendly destinations.

Outer Banks, North Carolina

There is something undeniably rousing, even inspiring, about the sight of a wild horse on a beach, the wind whipping its mane, the sun shining across its back. In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the equines might seem especially noble. They’re classified as Colonial Spanish mustangs, with a lineage that spans the centuries, descended from animals that Spanish and English settlers brought with them in the 1500s and early 1600s. Today, there are two populations of about 125 horses each on the Outer Banks, one on Shackleford Banks, the other farther north, ranging from the end of Route 12 up to the Virginia border.

Jay Bender, co-owner and operator of Corolla Outback Adventures, offers tours that take groups on a 20-mile, two-hour trip from Route 12 on to the state line.

“Typically, when we go out, we see what we call harems, which are a stallion and a few mares,” he said. “We tend to see them in the backcountry. But generally in May, when the deer flies hatch, is the best time to catch up with them on the sand dunes, which is pretty, and occasionally walking out on the beach.”

Groups can get about 100 feet from the horses, which Bender said “don’t spook and don’t run — they’re very used to people.” In addition to providing opportunities for sublime photographs, Bender can tailor group experiences to include visits to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club, a rambling Art Nouveau-style mansion built in the 1920s on Currituck Sound.

“And then, if they want lunch, we can accommodate that as well,” Bender said. “We can also arrange for our tour groups to go to the Wild Horse Museum and meet up with an interpreter.”

Des Allemands, Louisiana

Just as Louisiana is filled stem to stern with boat rides that take groups deep into its famed wetlands, Airboat Tours by Arthur in Des Allemands offers visitors a chance to see an incredible array of wildlife in their natural habitat. Typically, beasties spotted can include more than 50 species of birds, such as hawks, herons, egrets and, in wintertime, bald eagles. Spring and autumn bring brilliantly colored songbirds through the area as they make their way up and down the Mississippi Flyway. In February, when the weather warms, the gators begin to emerge; they stay active until November.

“You might think of a swamp as dark and creepy, but it’s actually pristine and beautiful,” said Timothy Bush, president and CEO of Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou Tourism. “It’s like going to a primitive place where time stands still. Everyone wants to go to the swamps to see alligators, and they won’t be disappointed. It’s not ever a guarantee, but every time I go on a swamp tour, I always see at least one — usually way more. They’re fascinating creatures that have some interesting adaptations. For example, the gender of a baby alligator is dictated by the temperature at which the eggs incubate. And you get to learn all about them and get a really close look at them on a tour like this.”

Airboat Tours by Arthur can accommodate motorcoaches of up to about 40 people by dividing the group over three airboats. Tours last from 60 to 90 minutes and offer the opportunity to learn about the Cajun culture from the company’s local guides.

Crystal River, Florida

For groups that want to swim with manatees, there are few locations in the world better than the city of Crystal River. It’s home to as many as 1,000 manatees in the winter months, when the animals flock to Kings Bay and the eponymous waterway, which are kept warm by the area’s 70 natural springs.

“We have manatees here year-round,” said Miles Saunders, media and content manager for Discover Crystal River Florida, “but peak season is between November and March. I was actually just over at Three Sisters Springs, and there were around 120 manatees in that one spring alone.”

A relative of the elephant, manatees don’t see well but are covered in sensitive hairs that relay information about their environment. Naturally curious, they will gently investigate humans floating near them, sometimes nuzzling lucky visitors. While other manatee habitats do not allow this kind of encounter, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge swimming tourism program predates environmental regulations and was allowed to continue after the Endangered Species Act passed. There are some 30 companies in the area that offer guided manatee tours, including outfits like Fun 2 Dive, which can handle large groups.

“My wife is a manatee biologist,” Saunders said. “So I’ve talked to some of the top researchers, and they’ve concluded that people in the same environment with manatees has no adverse impact on the manatees, but it appears to have a positive impact on the people. Because after they’ve had this encounter, people come out of the water committed to being advocates for the protection of manatees. This experience will change your life.”

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Perhaps one of the world’s most treasured marine creatures, sea turtles have nonetheless long been under threat from human activities. But sea turtle species such as loggerhead, green, leatherback and Kemp’s Ridley can all be found around and on Jekyll Island, particularly in the summer months, when adult nesting females come to lay eggs, juveniles are more plentiful and babies hatch from their shells.

“Sea turtles have been deeply embedded in the culture of Jekyll Island and coastal Georgia since the days of the Jekyll Island Club and likely for centuries before,” said Breanna Ondich, research specialist at the island’s Georgia Sea Turtle Center. “Adult nesting female loggerhead sea turtles have been studied on Jekyll Island since the mid-1950s, making it one of the oldest-studied sea turtle nesting rookeries in the world. Loggerhead sea turtles that nest on Jekyll Island are part of the Northern Recovery Unit, and although it was experiencing a long-term decline from 1989 to 2008, it is now a population in hope of recovery and has experienced an increase in annual nest counts over the past decade.”

That doesn’t mean visitors can plan on romping in the sea with the turtles — it remains unlawful to approach the endangered reptiles without a permit. However, groups can get educator-led, hourlong tours of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and its hospital for injured or ailing turtles. Groups of 25 or fewer can also book sunrise ecology walks, evening turtle walks and more.

Prestonsburg, Kentucky

Hunted to extinction in Kentucky in the 19th century, the elk of Prestonsburg aren’t locals — at least they weren’t in 1997, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife began reintroducing the animal to the area. Over the course of the next six years, more than 1,500 elk were transported to Kentucky from Colorado, resulting in a population of some 10,000 today spread over 16 counties.

Groups can get — relatively — close to the spectacular animals, which can weigh 700 pounds and stand five feet tall at the shoulder, by booking a tour through Prestonsburg Tourism or Jenny Wiley State Resort Park. Park naturalists take groups in vans or motorcoaches to the areas where the elk congregate, which is mostly on the flat terrain found atop reclaimed surface mines. The best times of the year to see the herd are in the cooler months, including early spring and late fall.

Group travelers, who might be able to get within 25 yards of the elk, should be sure to bring cameras and binoculars and be prepared for the experience of a lifetime, according to Prestonsburg Tourism Commission spokesperson Brooke LeMonds.

“The elk are these majestic, graceful animals, and to hear them bugle, which is how they communicate with each other, is just beautiful,” she said. “It’s one of the most melodic things I’ve ever heard in my life. Being around them is a very peaceful experience. I love it.”