These Fleeting Natural Wonders Are Worth Planning Your Next Vacation Around
“You should have been here last week!”
They're the words you never want to hear when you've traveled halfway around the world on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and it probably explains why you got such a good deal on the hotel.
From wildlife migrations and seasonal freezes to pin-point sunsets and two-minute solar eclipses, many of the world's most entrancing sights are transient moments of wonder where timing is everything. Sometimes it's just pure luck, but other sights require careful planning months or even years in advance.
However, there's only one sure-fire way of missing these exotic sights, and that's to visit at completely the wrong time.
Here's the where, when and how to help you maximize your chances of seeing some of nature's most magical moments.
Sakura cherry blossom season, Japan
If a trip across Japan is on your bucket list, pencil-in springtime. Between February and March each year Japan's treasured cherry trees bloom for just a couple of days, with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties held under the trees. It's all gets very philosophical as 127 million picnicking people ponder the fleeting nature of life. Scientifically, it's all about temperature; the blossoms begin in Kyushu in the south and sweep up the nation to Hokkaido in the north, with local TV stations carrying amusingly technical Cherry Blossom Forecasts of the 'petal front' (sakura zensen). Try late March in Tokyo at Shinjuku Gyoen or Ueno Park.
Red crab migration, Christmas Island
Think of the Great Migration and you’ll probably imagine herds of wildebeest and zebras crossing the Serengeti, but there’s another mass-movement of creatures that’s just as dramatic. Visit this remote island between November and December and you may witness between 40-120 million red crabs, who normally dwell in the forests, but make a beeline for the ocean at high tides to spawn. Christmas Island, which also draws tourists for its deserted beaches, hiking and game fishing, is most easily reached on a Virgin Australia flight from Perth.
Manhattanhenge, New York City
Have you taken the ultimate Manhattan sunset photo? Unless you’ve visited New York City on four specific days of the year, this Instagram favorite will remain elusive. For two days in May and two days in July, the Sun sets between skyscrapers on east-west streets, creating a perfectly composed sunset photo. The ultimate cause is the 23.5-degree tilt of the Earth’s axis in relation to its orbital path around the Sun, which makes sunrise and sunset points appear to slide back and forth across the horizon. But Manhattanhenge itself is unique because the city’s grid pattern was designed to exactly match the cardinal points, just as Stonehenge in England was built to align with the rising Sun at the summer solstice.
The Sea of Stars, The Maldives
You probably saw it in Ang Lee's fantastical Life Of Pi movie, but blue bioluminescence is real. Some phytoplankton and algae living in the oceans produce blue light when they’re disturbed by tides or passing boats, and when they do, it’s spectacular. This marine bioluminescence — often called the Sea of Stars — is visible in many places around the world. Perhaps the most famous is Vaadhoo Island in the Raa Atoll in The Maldives, from where it's easiest to see either side of a New Moon. Other destinations where bioluminescence can sometimes be seen include Puerto Rico's Mosquito Bay, Leucadia north of San Diego, and Florida's Navarre Beach.
The Fire Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
On the eastern side of El Capitan is a waterfall, Horsetail Falls, that occasionally glows bright yellow, orange and red. Caused by the Sun setting precisely in line with the Yosemite Valley for a few days in the third week of February, each sighting lasts just a couple of minutes. “You're walking through a valley and all of a sudden a waterfall catches on fire," says photographer Dave Gordon. “A lot has to line up perfectly to make this exact moment happen––it's intense to think about.” The phenomenon requires a horizon clear of cloud, and a lot of rainfall in the preceding months.
Total Solar Eclipse, Chile & Argentina
Why all the fuss about August’s Great American Eclipse? If you were in the Path of Totality and saw the stunning solar corona for a few minutes, you’ll know why the eclipse-chasing community just got much larger. Perhaps the ultimate natural experience, a Total Solar Eclipse happens when a New Moon perfectly aligns with the Sun from the perspective of a place on Earth. Being under the Moon’s shadow can take some serious forward planning, but luckily astronomers have calculated the schedules for the next 100,000 years. The next two Total Solar Eclipses are in Chile and Argentina on July 2, 2019, then December 14, 2020. The USA gets another turn on April 8, 2024.
Superbloom, southwest US
Occurring only once every few years between February and mid-March, a so-called Superbloom (botanists call it a Big Bloom) sees deserts get carpets of yellow, purple, pink and white flowers. “You can walk for miles through knee to waist deep Desert Gold sunflowers,” says Ed Madej, a retired geographer, botanist and volunteer researcher in Death Valley National Park, about 2016’s superbloom. “Three months prior it had been bare soil with scattered rocks.” Previous mass-flowering of flowers occurred in 1998 and 2005, and on average a superbloom happens every 11 years. Mojave Desert in California, the Colorado Desert subregion of the Sonoran Desert in California and Arizona, and the northern Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico are where to keep an eye on.
The Neverending Storm, Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
This one’s hard to miss if you make the journey. Though the very best time to go is the rainy season in October and November, some unusual meteorological conditions mean that Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela stages 10-hour lightning storms on about 300 days every year. "Sometimes you have lighting in each direction and find yourself in the middle of a whole armada of storms that last well after sunrise," says photographer Jonas Piontek, The Lightning & Landscape Dude, who specializes in lightning shots. “You are isolated from everyone and nature puts on one of her best shows.” The best observation spot is Catatumbo Camp.
Northern Lights, Arctic Circle
The aurora occur because electrically charged particles from the Sun’s corona are constantly smashing into the Earth’s magnetic field and exciting oxygen particles. They get funneled into a constant, but shifting oval around both poles. In the north they’re visible most nights between September to April from between 65°N and 75°N magnetic latitudes (Alaska, Northern Canada and Scandinavia), but that’s only because true darkness at those latitudes becomes elusive in summer. Waiting for clear skies is the real problem, so plan a trip of at least a week. The jet-stream makes Iceland is by far the warmest place in the Arctic Circle, and among the easiest to fly to direct.
The Vatnajökull ice caves, Iceland
Hundreds of shades of blue await you in one of nature’s most delicate, and fleeting environments; the ice cave. “It’s safe to visit the ice caves from November to March when it’s coldest outside, and they’re stable,” says Iurie Belegurschi at Iceland Photo Tours who takes groups into the ice caves within the vast Vatnajökull glacier in south east Iceland. “Most of them are formed by water running either through tunnels in the ice, or on the ground underneath the glacier.”