Immerse yourself in native animal habitats, sleep next to wild creatures or visit giant pandas. Australia’s zoos and aquariums have plenty to go wild over.
By Paul Chai
Australia has an amazing array of local wildlife, from the ubiquitous kangaroo to harder-to-see native animals such as the Tasmanian devil and hairy-nosed wombat. Some of the best places to see these – as well as African and other overseas animals – are Australia’s extensive range of zoos and aquariums. Australia’s zoos are leaders in conservation and modern zoo habitats, and each one offers a remarkable wildlife experience.
Generations of Melbourne residents have grown up going to Melbourne Zoo, the oldest zoo in Australia and an oasis on the cusp of the city centre. But it is also a zoo that keeps evolving. In the past few years, the zoo has launched Lion Gorge, an AUD$5 million upgrade of its lion enclosure, allowing visitors to get up close to the king of the jungle. The new design of the enclosure allows you to get so close that you can feel the lion’s breath, through fine, strong mesh. There is also Wild Sea, showcasing the coastal wildlife of the state of Victoria. The zoo is a leader in conservation and is targeting 21 endangered species – from rock wallabies to pygmy possums – to focus on their captive breeding and reintroduction into the wild.
At Healesville Sanctuary, just an hour north-east of the Melbourne in Melbourne in the Yarra Valley wine region, visitors are treated to an immersive experience centred on Australian wildlife and indigenous culture. A big feature at Healesville is getting in touch with Australia’s nocturnal native animals, with the Nocturnal House playing host to bilbies, bandicoots and possums (cute small mammals). There’s also a wombat enclosure where you can have a good look at these hard-to-spot locals and a koala forest that gets you very close to the loveable marsupials. Healesville is at the forefront of native animal rescue and rehabilitation.
Just under a one hour drive south-west of Melbourne, Werribee Zoo presents African animals in an open-range setting that gives them room to roam. Take one of the safari tours and be driven in an open-sided bus through the savanna grasslands, bringing you within metres of zebras, bison and giraffes. In the Australian Journey experience you can see emus, kangaroos and koalas in an open-range exhibit on the banks of the Werribee River.
Stealing the show from the tropical fish, penguins and crabs at SEA LIFE’s city centre location is one of Australia’s largest saltwater crocodiles, named Pinjarra. Croc Lair gives you a 360-degree view of this enormous creature, and you can even pop your head up into a plastic bubble right next to Pinjarra if you are brave enough. The other showstopper is the Mermaid Garden, which allows you to get up close with manta rays and grey nurse sharks as they glide overhead in a 2.2 million litre (580,000 gallon) aquarium.
At Sydney’s Taronga Zoo – a 15 minute drive north of the city centre in the suburb of Mosman – the views of Sydney Harbour are so beautiful you might have trouble keeping your eyes on the animals. The giraffes may just have the best view in Sydney, with a panoramic vista across to the city, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. If you want to join them for a night, try the Roar & Snore experience, in which you sleep in luxury safari tents in the zoo grounds.
The Penguin Expedition at Sydney’s SEA LIFE Aquarium, centrally located at Darling Harbour, is a world first. Visitors can take a boat ride through the centre of the colonies of king and gentoo penguins, whose artificial homes are inspired by Australia’s real-life Macquarie Island, a penguin colony that lies between New Zealand and Antarctica (but is considered part of Tasmania).
The safari-style Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, a five hour drive north-west of Sydney, is dedicated to the conservation of larger animals and in 2016 celebrated the birth of its first African elephant calf. The zoo is home to hundreds of animals and visitors can drive a six kilometre (3.7 mile) circuit that passes through bushland and savanna enclosures with giraffes, zebras, meerkats and rhinos.
Adelaide Zoo , on the city fringe near Botanic Park, is the only place in Australia where you can see giant pandas. You’ll find Wang Wang and Fu Ni in the Bamboo Forest, which has a large open area where you see (and even hear) the pandas munching away on fresh stalks of bamboo. Adelaide Zoo has a lot of unusual native stars, too, including long-nosed potoroos, short-beaked echidnas and quokkas.
This zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, an hour drive north of Brisbane, will always be known as the passion project of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. Despite Steve’s death in 2006 filming a documentary, Australia Zoo is still run by the Irwin family, and features a range of animals including tigers and plenty of crocodiles, of course. Australia Zoo lets you get hands-on with many of the zoo inhabitants like touching a dingo, feeding a kangaroo or running your hand along a giant python in the daily Wildlife Show.
Australia’s National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra is a world-class zoo with extraordinary wildlife experiences, such as patting a cheetah. Its Jamala Wildlife Lodge has become one of Australia’s most memorable zoo stays. Several lodges are built around the animal enclosures, allowing you to sleep next to some of the zoo’s inhabitants with just a reinforced glass panel separating you from hyenas, cheetahs and bears. The decor is luxury African safari lodge and you can visit the zoo the following morning.
Just outside Brisbane is Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the world’s first sanctuary dedicated to the protection and conservation of one of Australia’s best-known local animals. Koalas are difficult to see in the wild, but at Lone Pine you can hold one, handfeed a kangaroo, and visit other native animals in their natural habitats.
At Trowunna Wildlife Park, an hour east of Launceston in Tasmania, you can visit the elusive, and endangered, Tasmanian devil. This sanctuary specialises in Tasmanian native wildlife and all animals on display are either part of conservation projects or about to be released back into the wild. Visit the wetlands habitat to see species such as the pobblebonk frog, spotted marsh frog or Tasmanian froglet, all native to the island state.
In the Great Southern exhibit at AQWA you can see all the unique sea life that lives along the southern coastline of Western Australia. See the prickly pineapple fish and the western blue devil, one of the state’s most recognisable locals. You can also visit the Perth Coast and Dangerzone, home to some of Australia’s deadliest sea creatures, including sea snakes and the blue-ringed octopus.
A leader in Australian wildlife conservation and education, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, has hundreds of Australian native animals, all kept in natural forest settings. Visit animals that are almost impossible to spot in the wild, such as bilbies, Tasmanian devils and the imposing flightless bird, the cassowary. Currumbin has a wildlife hospital where you can check in on the current batch of wildlife patients, and plenty of live shows to keep the kids happy.