Abraham Lake, Alberta, Canada
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To the uninitiated this looks like a lake filled with the kind of surreal jellyfish you only see in animated movies. But what you’re actually seeing is frozen gas bubbles – Alberta’s Lake Abraham has a high density of dead organic materials and the result is that in winter bubbles of frozen methane form to create this enchanting view. The best time to go is December to March when the lake is most likely to be frozen. Warning: do not light a match.
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Gaseous particles colliding in the sky create the most amazing lightshow you’ll ever see. The colours change – green, yellow and blue are among the most common Aurora shades – and the movement varies, too. Sometimes you’ll see a quick flash, other times there’s a soft, long glow along the horizon and often they dance before your eyes. You’re never guaranteed to see the northern lights, but your best chance is to go as far north as possible to countries on or near the Arctic Circle such as Iceland, Finland, Norway, Canada or Alaska. Also, visit in the winter season (December to March) when there are fewer daylight hours.
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Aurora Borealis has an exact counterpart in the Southern Hemisphere, Aurora Australis. Due to larger areas of uninhabited land close to the South Pole, the lights of the Aurora Australis are even more elusive to spot than their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. If you can’t make a trip to Antarctica it is possible to make sightings in Tasmania, southern New Zealand and South America’s most southerly city, Ushuaia, Argentina – but they’re rare.
Blood Falls, Antarctica
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The sight of crimson liquid gushing out over crisp white snow is downright creepy. The red rush that flows from the aptly named Blood Falls is not so sinister, however. It’s actually a combination of salt water, iron and bacteria rising from underground before being exposed to oxygen at the surface. Located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region of Antarctica, Blood Falls is the only known occurrence of its kind; visitors must board a cruise ship visiting Antarctica’s Ross Sea in order to see it.
Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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Basalt columns are geological phenomena that form as a result of the cooling and cracking of thick lava. The famous Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland is one of the most beautiful examples: an estimated 40,000 mostly hexagonal columns of varying heights rise out of the Atlantic Ocean like some kind of real-life M.C. Escher staircase. The natural wonder, estimated to have formed 50 to 60 million years ago, is a World Heritage site.
Bioluminescent waves, Maldives
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Imagine being on a beach at night and seeing bright blue, glowing waves rolling towards you. This is known as bioluminescence and it’s caused by ostracod (crustaceans). One of the best places to spot bioluminescent waves is in the Maldives during mid-summer (December to April) but similar activity can be seen in other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean and California.
Great Blue Hole, Belize
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Generally speaking, sinkholes form in the ground when the earth is weakened by water that cannot be drained. “Blue holes” are thought to be massive submarine sinkholes that were formed during the Ice Ages and are now filled with water. They look spectacular from above, an endless blue hole within the sea, and are perhaps even more incredible to dive into. One of the most popular examples is the Great Blue Hole in Belize, which is more than 300 metres in diameter and 125 metres deep.
Flowering bluebells, UK
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In late April to early May, forests and meadows around Britain are carpeted with electric blue flowers anmed bluebells. The springtime bluebell season is an antidote to the winter blues and the show can be seen right around the country. The Woodland Trust has a Bluebell Watch (woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/bluebell-watch) where eager spotters can post their sightings, as well as maps displaying the annual bluebell spread.
Red crab migration, Christmas Island
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The 135 square kilometres that make up Christmas Island are home to an estimated 40-50 million red crabs. In the wet season, typically October to November, they migrate en masse to the beaches to release their eggs into the sea. While spawning dates can vary, the Christmas Island Tourism Association posts estimated dates on their site for visitors planning to witness the spectacle first-hand.
Coral spawning, Great Barrier Reef
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A colourful underwater blizzard is caused by the mass spawning of coral as it rises from the ocean floor. Spawning season in the Great Barrier Reef is typically November to December, however it doesn’t happen at once and times can vary depending location. Keen to see it? Contact a local dive operator to discuss their packages for viewing.
Fairy circles, Namibia and Australia
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What appear to be giant polkadots scattered all over the ground are actually circular patches of barren land that can measure up to 15 metres diameter. The exact cause of them is a bit of a mystery, but one theory is that they’re due to plant organisms clustering to make best use of available resources. Fairy circles were first discovered in arid regions of Namib Desert and more recently just outside the Western Australian town of Newman in 2014. They are not a permanent fixture on the landscape – their estimated life cycle is anywhere between 30 and 60 years.
Flowering desert, Chile
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The 105,000-square-kilometre Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar region in the world, thanks to its location between two mountain ranges and the heavy dry winds that blow through them. So when the landscape here erupts with a blanket of colourful flowers it is a pretty awesome sight. It’s hard to predict exactly when this will occur – it relates to the El Niño/La Niña weather cycles that bring higher volumes of rainfall – but there was a particularly incredible display in September and October 2015 after a massive rainfall in March of that year.
Frozen “waves”, Antartica
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These huge structures look like massive waves right before a surfer disappears into the barrel – only they never break. They are compacted masses of snow that have been pressurised, frozen in time to form these towering, wave-like beauties.
Magnetic termite mounds, Northern Territory, Australia
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The magnetic termite species found in northern parts of Australia build their own skyscrapers in the form of flat, sand structures that are about two metres in height and all with the exact same north-to-south alignment. Hundreds of them can be viewed inside Litchfield National Park, around 120 kilometres outside of Darwin.
Penitentes, Chile and Argentina
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These tall, thin spikes of snow, ranging from one to four metres in height, cover the mountain tops of the Dry Andes mountain region in Chile and Argentina. They are formed via a process of sublimation, in which water vapours in their gaseous form skip the liquid state and turn straight into solid ice.
Morning Glory cloud, Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia
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This astonishing cloud formation looks like shockwaves in the sky. The exact cause is unknown but some meteorologists believe their appearance relates to the different weather systems from central and northern Australian meeting in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The best time of year to try and see a Morning Glory cloud is September to November and the best-known spot is Burketown in northern Queensland.
Moskstraumen maelstrom, Norway
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Maelstroms are systems of tidal whirlpools. One of the most famous examples, and the second most powerful of its kind, is the Moskstraumen system, which is located off the Lofoten Islands on the mid-north coast of Norway. The term maelstrom is a Nordic word for “strong whirlpool”, and was introduced to the English language by Edgar Allan Poe. The strongest currents occur between July and August and can be seen by tourists on boat trips – from a safe distance.
Periodical cicadas, North America
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Periodical cicadas (often referred to as locusts) found in dry forested areas in the central and eastern parts of North America, spend up to 17 years feeding underground until they dramatically appear by the billions to climb the closest tree, shed their skin and shift to winged form. They fly, engage in a mating process, lay eggs and then … die. The link below lists the next possible sighting times and locations for both 13- and 17-year broods.
Salmon run, North America
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Every year hundreds of millions of salmon travel from the ocean back to the streams to give birth to a new generation. It’s an absolutely frenetic migration that ends in the death of the salmon and a mass of food for the other wildlife. Natural World Safaris, operating out of Alaska, offers trips that allow visitors to view the salmon run by boat, and, if you’re brave enough, hop into the river and walk among them.
Sardine run, South Africa
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South Africa’s sardine run, another mass marine migration, is a phenomenon with no real explanation. Every year between May and July, after completing their spawning in the cooler waters around South Africa’s Cape, millions of shiny little sardines make their way up the east coast and then disappear from sight. Witness the migration from above water on a tour boat, spot the shimmering patches in the sea from the coast or go below and dive or snorkel among them.
Snow “chimneys”, Mount Erebus, Antarctica
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Antarctica’s Mount Erebus is the earth’s southernmost active volcano. As hot gases try to escape from its sides, they push out to form caves, and once the gas actually escapes the caves it forms into tall columns that look like chimneys made of snow. They seem cartoonish, but the volcanic gases puffing out the tops are lethal.
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Officially known as snow rollers, these doughnut-shaped snow formations require a very precise consistency of snow and just the right amount of gravitational or wind-powered push. If this occurs, snow rolls into massive shapes, like icing-sugar-sprinkled doughnuts. There’s no guarantee where or when they’ll form, though they’re most common in slightly hilly and open areas. They’re super rare, so if you do see one, take all the pictures your phone can hold and then buy a lottery ticket.
Staircase to the Moon, Broome, Australia
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As the full moon rises, light reflects off mudflats in Roebuck Bay, creating an optical illusion of stairs reaching up into the night sky. This occurs on three consecutive days of each month when the moon is full – the Broome Visitor Centre publishes the exact dates and times for viewing.
Lake Natron, Tanzania
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Lake Natron, a shallow pink-hued lake with surface patterns like cracked clay, is a sight in its own right. What makes it even more special, however, is that up to three-quarters of the world’s population of lesser flamingos (the smallest species of flamingo) are born here each year. The eggs are typically laid in September and they finish hatching in December. There are currently two tented camps near the shores of the lake – the accommodation and facilities at both are quite basic but the views are, well, priceless.
Leatherback sea turtle nesting, Trinidad and Tobago
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When thousands of 250-kilogram reptiles swim across the ocean to dig holes on a beach you know you’re in must-see territory. Leatherback sea turtles (they are the only species without a bony shell) are the world’s largest living turtles and they travel to Trinidad’s beaches where they each lay hundreds of eggs every year. Now comes the cute part: when the tiny little turtles emerge from the sand they all waddle about on the beach trying to find the water. The turtle-watching season runs from March until August – you’ll witness the nesting and laying of eggs at the beginning of this period and the hatching typically starts in June. Leatherback sea turtles are officially classified as a vulnerable species with some sub-species even being classified as endangered.
Wildebeest migration, Kenya and Tanzania
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This is it, the most fantastic and overwhelming animal migration on the planet – each year between January and April a thunderous herd of more than one million zebra, wildebeest and antelope make their way around the Masai Mara and Serengeti. To be in the right place at the right time, book with a specialist operator.