Three great migrations you must witness – on air, land and water

Advice

Three of the most spectacular annual migrations, from wildebeest in the Serengeti, who roll the dice in the lottery of life and death, to grey whales in Mexico, who navigate the vast Pacific Ocean.

On land: Wildebeest in the Serengeti in Tanzania 

Nature has a habit of teaching us humans valuable lessons. And the migration of around a million and a half wildebeest that rotates each year around the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is no exception. I’ve seen it twice now and both were unforgettable experiences. But for different reasons.

The first occasion was the scene we all remember from watching wildlife documentaries. The Grumeti River – like the Mara River further north – is a lottery of life and death, a whirlwind of bucking and kicking animals dodging windpipe-crushing torpedo attacks from the tooth-infested jaws of lurking crocs. 

The Grumeti River is a lottery of life and death

The Grumeti River is a lottery of life and death

Credit:
getty

I remember the relative calm before the storm. The sense that maybe this year’s gathering of comical gnus would just give it a miss and decide to make do with the clapped-out grazing they were so desperate to escape. But then the crescendo of hooves began to increase, the pushing and shoving became more violent, the basso profundo bellowing grew louder. And suddenly all hell broke loose. 

Uncharacteristically, I put my camera down. This needed to be experienced raw. Instead of taking photos, I found myself following one individual wildebeest willing him on, watching in disbelief as the animal right next to him was swallowed up in the seething mass of water and bodies. Somehow, I – my wildebeest should I say – made it through to fight another day.

The sheer scale of the scenes are moving

The sheer scale of the scenes are moving

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GETTY

My second experience of the migration was an altogether more tranquil scene. While the river crossings take place in June and July, at the other end of the cycle are the mass births in January and February in the southern Serengeti. All around us as far as the eye could see were newly born calves. I found the sheer scale of these scenes, along with the herds of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, impala and many other antelope species profoundly moving.

G Adventures (0344 272 2060; gadventures.co.uk) is offering a nine-day Serengeti Migration small group safari from £2,999 per person, including full-board accommodation, safari drives and local transport. International flights are not included. 

Richard Madden

On water: Grey whales in Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula

The San Ignacio Lagoon is a sheet of pale blue steel in the early morning, opaque shallows ringed by cool yellow sand dunes which protect these narrow channels from the raging surf of the great Pacific Ocean. The skipper of my little boat cuts the engine and the only sound is the gentle sough-sough of the grey whales when they surface slowly, almost silently, with their offspring tucked in close to their sides.

The whales arrive here by Christmas, giving birth in a succession of lagoons at the southern end of Mexico’s Baja Sur peninsula. By March the females are suckling their calves and, evidence suggests, teaching their offspring that the small boats carrying whale watchers are not a threat.

A whale off the coast of Baja California

A whale off the coast of Baja California

Credit:
GETTY

Grey whales are gentle, unostentatious visitors, unlike the great humpbacks which are seen offshore in the same season, leaping and breaching with a lot of fuss and vigour. The greys seem more dignified, languidly diving and turning on one side to scoop up the bottom sediment to filter out crustaceans and other microscopic life.

Of all the types of whales I have seen above and below the surface, the Greys seem especially communicative. They roll gently at the surface to peer at the little boats with one great moist eye. This peace and karmic grace is at odds with the perilous journey they have taken to get here.

"They roll gently at the surface to peer at the little boats with one great moist eye"

“They roll gently at the surface to peer at the little boats with one great moist eye”

Credit:
GETTY

Grey whales spend most of the year in the chilled waters off Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula and the Bering Sea. To reach Baja they have swum almost seven thousand miles (one way) across the vast Pacific. Biologists agree that it’s the longest migration of any mammal on earth, with one tagged whale covering a staggering 13,700 miles (22,000km). That homeward journey is not just long, it will put the helpless calves at risk of meeting killer whales which cruise the Californian coast hoping for an easy meal. I wish them Godspeed.

Journey Latin America (020 3553 1773; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has an 11-day Active Mexico: Camping and Kayaking in Baja California trip from £1,814pp including full-board accommodation, excursions and local transport. Excludes international flights.   

Tim Ecott

In the air: Pink flamingos in Kenya

At first, from our distant viewpoint high on Baboon Cliff, it seems a normal enough lake. But then I notice that the shoreline is washed with pink. Against the blue water and earthy savannah tones, this lurid colour seems synthetic: a slick of candyfloss, perhaps. As we approach, my binoculars reveal the truth. 

Flamingos. Hundreds of thousands of them – massing in the shallows, upending in the deeps and commuting over the lake in gangly squadrons.

"All are in constant mechanical motion, working the shallows with leggy strides"

“All are in constant mechanical motion, working the shallows with leggy strides”

Credit:
getty

Down on the foreshore the sheer volume of birds is jaw-dropping, and the air fills with their dull, nasal honking. Blood-red bills identify the majority as lesser flamingos, but longer necks also reveal clusters of taller greater flamingos. All are in constant mechanical motion, working the shallows with leggy strides and swinging necks as they filter life-giving algae from the lake’s saline soup. Those further out appear to be moving on submerged conveyor belts as they perform their breeding display in choreographed unison. Occasionally a whole conga-line erupts into the bizarre “flag salute” dance, heads bobbing like pistons. 

In flight, individual birds look absurd, their necks and legs impossibly long. Yet each airborne flock has a collective grace as it wheels around to land, scattering reflections over the water.

Lake Nakuru is one of several soda lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley that host an annual mass migration of flamingos from their breeding grounds in Tanzania. Numbers generally peak from April to June, with the birds moving between lakes in search of the best feeding: sometimes Nakuru has the most; sometimes nearby Lake Bogoria. Other wildlife is also plentiful – leopards, giraffes and rhinos roam the reserve, but everything takes place against a backdrop of pink. More than just another birder’s tick, this gathering is one of the wonders of the natural world.

Africa Sky (01342 889621; africaskysafari.co.uk) can arrange a 10-night package combining Lake Nakuru National Park with Samburu National Reserve, Maasai Mara National Game Reserve and Mombasa from £3,159pp, including full-board accommodation, transfers, safari drives and flights.

Mike Unwin

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