Swimming with animals doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean hopping into a tiny man-made enclosure or tank. You can have a close encounter with magnificent creatures in the wild – and there may be no other experience that can beat swimming alongside humpbacks, sea turtles, dolphins, sea lions or some of the other wonderful wildlife listed here.
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Swimming with Humpbacks in Tonga (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Humpback whales are some of the most majestic creatures on Earth. This baleen whale species can be as long as 52 feet, and weigh as much as 79,000 pounds, but not to worry, their diet does not include humans. They only feed on small marine animals such as plankton, krill and small fish. And, when conditions are right, you can enjoy one of the rarest and most unforgettable animal encounters, swimming with the humpbacks in Tonga. Generally available only in August and September, eco-friendly outfitters strive for “mutual interactions,” meaning it’s not a 100 percent guarantee that you’ll actually get to swim with the whales, but this kingdom in the South Pacific is one of the only places in the world to enjoy the opportunity. You may also get to hear the beautiful singing of the whales, see their stunning full body breaching, watch as a group of males persue a female mate, or see a mother gently tending to her calf.
Manatees in Crystal River, Florida (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Crystal River is renowned as one of the few places in Florida that native manatees flock to every year during the colder months. Here, the waters are so crystal clear, they’re ideal for viewing these marine mammals that are also known as sea cows. Hundreds of the gentle giants can be found in the springs and rivers every winter, though some remain throughout the year. This is the only spot you can legally go swimming with them, and outfitters like American Pro Diving Center can help make it happen. Some 350 of the 1,200-pound gentle animals spend winter in the warm, shallow waters. Quite friendly, the curious manatees have even been known to greet snorkelers, swimmers, and scuba divers with a gentle nuzzle.
Pigs in Exuma, Bahamas (Hotel Prices & Photos)
On Big Major Cay, an uninhabited isle in Exuma, part of the Bahamas, you can view and even take part in, a very unusual sight: a group of tame pigs and their piglets that live freely on the island’s white sand beaches and can swim. In fact, they often swim right out to greet boats and their passengers in the hopes of scoring a treat. The swimming pigs have become one of the most popular attractions in this remote region, and while they’re absolutely adorable lounging on the beach, soaking up the Bahamian sun and treading through the clear azure waters, animal lovers will also be impressed by more traditional sights, like tropical birds including osprey, banana quits and terns as well as the rare Bahamian iguana, hawksbill turtles, huge groupers, benign lemon sharks and crawfish.
Tours are available to take you out to the island, where you can feed the pigs and swim right alongside them.
Whale sharks in Palawan, Philippines (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Whale sharks are huge – in fact, they’re the largest fish in the world, weighing up to 20 tons and growing as long as nearly 40 feet in length, yet this gentle giant is completely harmless as it feeds on plankton, algae and very small fish. It can be found in warm waters around the world, including the waters off Palawan, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful islands on the planet thanks to its clear aquamarine waters, limestone cliffs, lagoons and jaw-dropping beaches. If you are lucky enough to encounter one, this is an experience you will never forget. But just look don’t touch as passive interaction with any type of marine life is healthier for the animal – keep watching, and often the curious whale shark will come close to you.
Sperm whales in Dominica, Caribbean (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Dominica, known as the “Nature Island,” isn’t a place to go if you envision spending your days lying on the sand, but it is ideal if you want to swim with sperm whales, visit magnificent waterfalls and soak in hot springs pools. Its resident population of sperm whales live just off the coast and are often visible from shore, thanks to the sheer underwater drop-offs around the island, which creates deep, sheltered bays along the western coastline, making the perfect haven for the sperm whale to breed and calve. This is the only nation where these whales reside all year long, though the best time to see or swim with them is between November and March. A number of outfitters will bring you out on a boat where you can jump off and get right in with these amazing animals.
Manta Rays, Great Barrier Reef, Australia (Hotel Prices & Photos)
There are few better places in the world to experience a spectacular underwater world than the Great Barrier Reef, where it seems nature decided to call upon all of the colors of its vast palette, applying them liberally to this magnificent reef that’s considered one of the world’s seven natural wonders. It spans for nearly 150 miles and is made up entirely of living organisms as the most extensive reef on the planet. Some 400 marine species call it home, so if you dive or snorkel here, you’ll not only see animals like turtles, sharks and brightly covered fish, but manta rays. By visiting Lady Elliot Island in May or June, you’ll have the best chance to swim right alongside the largest ray on the planet – some of which are 22 feet from wingtip to wingtip.
Sea Lions on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California, Mexico (Hotel Prices & Photos)
There are few other places, if any, where you can actually get in the water and frolic with sea lions, than off Isla Espiritu Santo near La Paz on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a UNESCO protected biosphere. It’s arguably one of the most exciting travel experiences you’ll ever have. A number of tour operators, including highly-rated Alonso Tours, will bring you out to this beautiful island that offers one of the most unspoiled ecosystems in Baja where you can swim in the crystal clear waters that are home to turtles, manta rays, dolphins, all sorts of birds, whales, and of course, sea lions. At the sea lion colony, made up of hundreds of sea lions, including playful sea lion pups, you can get in the water and swim right alongside them. Alonso also brings passengers to one of the idyllic beaches in the archipelago for a regional lunch, and the chance to go swimming again, in the alluring and incredibly clear waters.
Stingrays in the Cayman Islands, Caribbean (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Grand Cayman, the largest of three Cayman Islands, is a water lover’s paradise with a multitude of family-friendly activities and attractions to be discovered along picture-perfect beaches that sit along the edge of waters that are as clear as a swimming pool. And, while stingrays can’t usually be seen by swimmers, you can do just that at Stingray City, a series of shallow sandbars off Grand Cayman Island. Visitors can wade right out into the sea, and experience the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of these gentle creatures. They can even be fed by hand, offering an especially unforgettable, if ticklish, experience.
Dolphins in Hawaii (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Seeing dolphins in captivity, when they should be out enjoying the vast expanse of the ocean, can be rather depressing. And, who really wants to get in the pool with one knowing what a miserable life its living? If you’ve always wanted to swim with them, but can’t stomach that, the Big Island of Hawaii offers the opportunity to experience this with wild dolphins that are living free. There are a number of outfitters offering the opportunity, including Roberta Goodman, who brings passengers out on a boast as their own private guide. You’ll be fitted with snorkel gear to enjoy a four hour excursion, jumping right in with these amazing creatures. The most common types of dolphin around the Hawaii coast are the Spinner dolphins, with well over 1,000 individuals populating the area.
Sea turtles in Barbados (Hotel Prices & Photos)
If “Finding Nemo” got you dreaming of sea turtles, visiting the island nation of Barbados can help you turn that dream into a reality. There are over a dozen tour operators to choose from, and most organizations offer lunch and snorkeling gear to create an ideal family-friendly excursion. It’s a fabulous day out, sailing down the gorgeous coastline, sipping rum punch and other drinks, and of course, seeing those amazing turtles and snorkeling in the Caribbean – some tours include stops at the beach and snorkeling over shipwrecks too. Due to the combination of warm, calm waters on the island’s west coast, and the turtle’s renowned friendliness it’s easy and extremely enjoyable to swim among them.