There’s only one place in the world where people can swim and interact with manatees in their natural habitat, and that is the Crystal River on the Nature Coast of Florida. Independently owned tour companies like Manatees in Paradise and Manatee Tour and Dive lead informal boat excursions out to meet the magical mammals.
Taking the term “gentle giant” to new extremes, the enormous yet serene whale shark subsists only on plankton and tiny fish. It’s the largest shark and as big as many whales, but this calm and slow-moving creature is safe to dive nearby—although obviously, you’d want to avoid its powerful vacuum mouth. The closest whale shark hangout is offshore Isla Holbox in the Cancun/Mayan Riviera region. They also frequent the waters around Puerto Rico and Honduras.
Sea turtles aren’t particularly rare; you can find them off every shore from Hawaii to Costa Rica to Australia. Getting nose-to-beak with them is a different story. In Hawaii for example, seeing a vague shell shape many feet below is considered a “sighting.” The Caribbean seems to facilitate hands-on encounters more than most other tourist regions: Excursions on Powerboats Barbados, for example, always stop at a sea turtle feeding area off the west coast of the island, allowing guests to swim right up to the turtles and sometimes give them a quick pat on the shell.
The most peculiar animal swimming adventure in the Western hemisphere is on the shore of an obscure island in the Exuma Cays of the Bahamas. Many years ago, a resident left pigs on Big Major Cay, and decades later, the porky descendants are totally acclimated to their beachside digs. They swim around freely and beg for food off human tourists. Tours with Exuma Water Sports allow people get in the water with them, while others just boat up to say hello, knowing that the pigs have become undomesticated and rather pushy over the years.
Offered by various Caribbean and Mexican tour companies, like Island Routes, the horseback swim is a “soft adventure” that’s especially fun after a few hours riding through the jungle or down the beach. It’s fine for all levels of rider except the very youngest beginners. One word of caution: This activity is often billed as romantic, but if the horse beside you decides to drop some apples, it will quickly devolve to a giggling gross-out fest.
Massive, beautiful and otherworldly, manta rays strike awe in people, and are never forgotten once seen. Just to up the drama factor of a manta experience even more, a few tour operators on the Big Island of Hawaii, like Kona Honu Divers, (where manta ray sightings are commonplace) now offer night dives for scuba divers and snorkelers. Tour guides often shine lights downward from the surface of the water to better illuminate the manta rays as they swoop through the sea.
As nature-focused as any destination in America, but a good deal quirkier than most, the Florida Keys offers its own unique spin on marine animal interactions. At Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, guests can either get in the water with California sea lions for a full interactive experience, or assist a sea lion in painting an original artwork. Wilbur, the facility’s most famous resident artist, is pictured here.
While dolphin swims have become almost commonplace in beachy vacation spots, the chance to get in the water with belugas is still rare, as the Arctic is their natural habitat. Belugas are sociable, chirpy and bizarrely adorable, which makes them a fan favorite and a natural choice for interactive programs at parks. SeaWorld offers in-water experiences at multiple park locations. Other facilities, including the Georgia Aquarium, have recently launched “meet the beluga” programming.
If your adventures lead you to the warmest parts of the Pacific or over to the Indian Ocean, look out for this photogenic little fishie, usually found in or around sea anemones. It’s the colorful clown fish, prized as an “ornamental” species because of its vivid coloring and small size, but much happier to behold in the wild.
Lena Katz is the author of the Travel Temptations series (SIP, SUN, SNOW), published by Globe Pequot Press in 2009. Lena is also a travel expert for Celebrations/1800FLOWERS and WEtv (online and on-air). She contributes to the South China Morning Post and ABC News online. Lena is a former Orbitz Travel blogger and former columnist for the LA Times. She's been published in Brides Magazine, Robb Rep...(Read More)