Welcome to our zoo without fences, where koalas laze in the treetops just minutes from the city, kangaroos kick up dust in the outback and the oceans are alive with incredible aquatic life.
In South Australia, unique Australian wildlife is abundant. Thanks to Australia’s island isolation, so much of our wildlife can’t be found anywhere else in the world and with expanses of untamed wilderness right here, South Australia is one of the best places to get up close with iconic Australian wildlife in their natural environment. From swimming with Australian Sea Lions to shark cage diving, having lunch with a kangaroo or taking selfies with a koala, here’s our wildlife lover’s guide to South Australia.
The koala population is abundant in South Australia. Just minutes from Adelaide, koalas can be spotted snoozing in the treetops of the leafy eastern suburbs, while just beyond the city limits the lush bushland paradise of the Adelaide Hills is a veritable garden of Eden for our gum-loving locals. It’s here you can get up close for a koala selfie at Cleland Wildlife Park, which is also home to more than 130 native species including kangaroos, reptiles, wombats and birds.
But back to koalas. Despite the name, Kangaroo Island is actually one of the best places to see koalas in the wild in Australia, and the island is home to Australia’s only chlamydia-free population, considered crucial to the survival of koalas nationwide. Cruising around the island, you need only to turn your eyes to the treetops to spot koalas lounging in the canopies, but for a truly immersive and up-close encounter, head for Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park. Spanning a massive 50 acres, the park is home to more than 1,000 animals. Hand-feed kangaroos and wallabies, cuddle koalas and see Australia’s most iconic animals, from wombats and echidnas to reptiles and birds.
From the wilds of the outback to the sandy shores of the coast, you won’t have to roam far for a close encounter with this Australian icon. Kangaroos are so prolific in South Australia that they have even been spotted bounding down city streets in Adelaide – seriously. You’ll find skippy hopping wild through rolling vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley and the Barossa, beachside on the Yorke and Fleurieu Peninsula, along the banks of the Murray River… and just about everywhere in between. Further afield, the Flinders Ranges provides some of the best opportunities for kangaroo and wildlife spotting. Explore Rawnsley Park Station, Arkaroola and Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park for guaranteed kangaroo encounters and a chance to spot the illusive Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby. Always dreamed of handfeeding kangaroos? Head to Cleland Wildlife Park, Gorge Wildlife Park or Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary in the Adelaide Hills, Urimbirra on the Fleurieu Peninsula or Mikkira Station on the Eyre Peninsula.
It’s in in South Australia too, that you can come face-to-tooth with one of the world’s most impressive apex predators. The turquoise waters off the Eyre Peninsula are the only place in Australia you can (safely) dive into the deep with Great White Sharks. The most iconic shark species in the world, Great Whites can grow up to seven metres long, weigh more than 3000 kilograms and reach speeds of up to 32kph, making for unforgettable encounters… from the safety of an impenetrable steel cage!
In fact, it was in South Australia that the very first shark cage expedition took place when shark attack survivor-turned-researcher Rodney Fox was recruited in 1976 by the producers of JAWS to use his custom-built cage to film live footage for the movie. Now, the pristine waters off the coast of Port Lincoln are one of only two places in the world you can shark cage dive with Great Whites. Jump on board a full day boat charter from Port Lincoln with Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions or Calypso Star Charters and explore locations otherwise inaccessible, where Great Whites are abundant. Wildlife lovers will also appreciate that each operators is eco-certified.
A real-life David Attenborough documentary from June to September, the annual migration of Southern Right Whales along the South Australian coastline is a nature show of epic proportions. South Australia’s waters offer some of the best whale viewing opportunities in the world, and some of the most unique experiences to get up close with these gentle giants of the deep.
On the Eyre Peninsula, take a boat tour through a whale nursery with EP Cruises and spot newly born calves learn how to swim and breach or take to the sky for a bird’s eye view of these majestic marine mammals with Chinta Air. At the Head of Bight, a protected marine park, these waters are a safe haven for over a hundred Southern Right Whales to give birth and raise their calves every year. Stroll along the purpose-built boardwalk to get so close you’ll hear their blowhole take deep breaths. The waters along the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island welcome whales on their annual migration, and Kangaroo Island Ocean Safari and Big Duck Boat Tours have your front row seats to the show. Here’s our guide to the best spots to whale watch in South Australia.
Australian Sea Lions
The waters around the Eyre Peninsula and Kangaroo Island also play host to one of the most unique swimming lessons, and sea lions are the instructor. Quite possibly the ocean’s most charismatic residents and often referred to as the puppies of the sea, swimming with these playful pups makes for unforgettable underwater encounter. Swim with Australian Sea Lions just off Port Lincoln with Calypso Star Charters or head west to Baird Bay where the waters are a little more protected.
Kangaroo Island is also home to a colony of endangered Australian Sea Lions, who can be found lounging at the aptly named Seal Bay. Here, you can watch sea lions in their natural habitat from a 900-metre-long wheelchair accessible boardwalk, meandering through the dunes to impressive coastal lookouts or get even closer with a guided beach tour. Afterwards, join them in their watery playground on a sea lion swimming tour with Kangaroo Island Ocean Safari or KI Marine Adventures.
Always dreamt of swimming with wild dolphins? A bucket list item for many wildlife lovers, joining these curious and incredibly intelligent mammals in their natural environment is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures offers charters from Kingscote and Emu Bay to remote coastal beaches where you can swim with wild Bottlenose dolphins and frolic with seals. Or just minutes from Adelaide, sail from Glenelg beach on a catamaran with Temptation Sailing, which offers dolphin viewing and swimming experiences. Thousands of common and bottlenose dolphins call the Gulf St Vincent home, so sightings are virtually guaranteed. A short drive away, you can also kayak in Port Adelaide’s Dolphin Sanctuary. With a 10,000-year-old mangrove forest, this river system is home to around 40 resident bottlenose dolphins, while another 400 transient dolphins also frequent the river to feed, play and nurse their young.
The Eyre Peninsula is also home to one of the most weird and wonderful animal encounters. The annual migration of Giant Australian Cuttlefish is one of the most spectacular events under the water - and is unique to South Australia. Between May and August, cuttlefish gather in their thousands to mate and spawn. Weighing up to 10kg and known as the chameleons of the sea, cuttlefish change their colours and patterns wildly as they swim around, making for a kaleidoscopic spectacular that draws snorkelers and divers each year.
For another unique aquatic experience, head to Oceanic Victor on the Fleurieu Peninsula where you’ll swim with Southern Bluefin Tuna in an undersea aquarium. Check out our guide to the best swimming safaris in South Australia for more underwater animal encounters.
South Australia is a haven for birds, and avid twitchers (that’s serious birdwatchers for the uninitiated) will tell you our backyard is one of the best places to spot rare species. With a vast and varied landscape, almost 500 different bird species thrive across a dramatic array of habitats including woodlands, bush, coast, desert and wetlands. A walk through one of South Australia’s best national parks will reward eagle-eyed twitchers, a trip to the outback comes paired with guaranteed Wedge-tailed Eagle sightings, while just minutes from the city you can spot species from all over the world at the Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary Each year, more than 27,000 birds stop at this coastal wetland to rest and feed on their annual migration from countries as far afield as Alaska and Siberia.
For coastal bird species, head for Coorong National Park and Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park, while the banks of the Murray River offers some of the best waterbird watching opportunities with over 200 species in the area. Study the Waikerie Bird Watcher’s trail to know where to spot White-plumed Honeyeaters, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Fairy-Wren or Red-capped Robins, or head to nearby Banrock Station Wetlands. Further north in the Flinders Ranges is where to find Wedge-tailed Eagles, while the chance to get up close to birds of prey awaits on Kangaroo Island. An environmental and educational rehabilitation centre, at Raptor Domain kookaburras, Wedge-tailed Eagles and owls will soar overhead during their impressive flight show. Kangaroo Island is also one of the last remaining habitats for the rare Glossy Black-cockatoo.
Get back to nature and go off-grid
There’s nothing like a restorative weekend in nature to refresh and reset. Surrender to mother nature’s nurturing embrace as you wake up to the sound of birds, not your alarm at one of South Australia’s best off-grid accommodations.