Swimming with wildlife can be a life-changing experience—spiritual even, some people say. Tiny seahorses delight travelers with their strange prehensile tails and bright camouflage, while whale sharks leave swimmers in awe of their size and their (luckily) vegetarian diet. Then there are dolphins, who mesmerize onlookers with their acrobatic tricks, intelligence and shiny coat.
Tourists should always adhere to locals rules when splashing around with these creatures, to make sure it's as safe for them as it is fun for us. Here are six incredible animals to commune with in the water—respectfully, of course:
Wild Pigs at Big Major Cay, Bahamas
There is an animal called a sea pig, which crawls along the ocean floor and is related to the sea cucumber (actually an animal, not a plant). But you can also swim with real pigs: “pig pigs,” the mammals with the snout. In the waters off Big Major Cay in the Exhumas, Bahamas, the kind of pigs we normally think of as land-only animals also splash around in the surf. Even ecologists aren’t completely sure how the pigs originally got there—legend has it that Europeans long ago stocked the island with the animals, who have since made the place their home. Today, the local tourism board says that visitors who want to join them in the waters can expect to find feral yet exceptionally friendly animals.
Penguins at Boulder Beach, South Africa
We tend to think of penguins as snowbound birds, the flightless, tuxedoed creatures of the Antarctic. But, as one wildlife nonprofit writes, “Out of the 17 penguin species in the world there are only 6 species that live in Antarctica.” And one of species that doesn’t, the African penguin, swims at Boulder Beach, near Cape Town, South Africa. The sandy stretch is part of Table Mountain National Park, which boasts the world-renowned Boulders Penguin Colony. The birds may look cuddly, but it’s wise to be careful when swimming near them. As the South African national parks website warns, “their beaks are as sharp as razors and if they feel threatened they have no qualms about nipping the odd finger or nose.”
Manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
People love to see manatees—strange-looking, hulking creatures that are related to elephants and can grow to 1,200 pounds—up-close. And Citrus County, Florida, “is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees in their natural habitat.” But, conservationists say, Citrus County is also where some visitors harass the animals, a definite no-no. Visitors should not touch, feed or attempt to ride the manatees while swimming, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks swimmers to use what’s called passive observation: Look, but don’t touch.
Seahorses at Ria Formosa, Portugal
As the National Wildlife Federation writes in Ranger Rick, its publication for kids, seahorses have a bizarre mix of parts: “With their horsy heads, [prehensile] monkey tails, and kangaroo pouches, they sure are oddballs of the fish family.” Lady seahorses use an ovipositor (a special egg-laying organ) to deposit their eggs into the males’ pouches, and it’s the gentlemen who carry the eggs to term. Most seahorses can also change color to hide from predators, and they have the ability to move one eye independently of the other, meaning they can look for food in one direction while watching for predators in another.
Even better, as one marine biologist writes for the Natural History Museum's Oceans Portal, some seahorse couples “greet each other every morning with a unique dance” and spend several minutes pirouetting together before separating for the day. While they live in seagrass beds, mangrove roots and coral reefs around the world, including the coasts of North and South America, Africa and Australia, the Ria Formosa area in Portugal boasts one of the densest populations. Local companies offer snorkeling tours to observe the seahorses, as well as diving excursions.
Whale Shark at Holbox Island, Mexico
The whale shark is a shark, it’s true, but it mainly eats plankton, making it safe (and awe-inducing) to share the water with it. Commonly referred to as a “gentle giant,” the whale shark is the largest-known fish on the planet. And, luckily for humans who want to see one, when it needs food or warmth it leaves the deeper waters where it usually lives to swim up to the surface.
While these placid sharks live in tropical waters in various parts of the world, for those living in the United States the closest place to swim with them is off Holbox Island in Mexico. Swimmers can marvel at their spotted skin, which looks so much like a starry sky that, as Science Daily explains, researchers have tried using “a pattern-matching algorithm developed by astronomers to locate celestial objects” in order to identify and track individual whale sharks.
Spinner Dolphins at Various Beaches, Hawaii
Spinner dolphins are a popular co-swimming species known for their gymnastic “tricks.” Researchers believe the dolphins' leaps and spins may be meant to shoo away nearby parasites, attract a mate or reset organs, among other reasons—and they bring loads of tourists to Hawaii each year, hoping to spot some of the action.
In fact, so many tourists swim with these dolphins that studies show it’s interrupting their sleep cycles. Exhaustion may harm a dolphin’s ability to find food and communicate—and, ultimately, to survive. As NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, writes, “Even when spinner dolphins are swimming, they actually may still be resting and sleeping. When dolphins sleep they must be partially awake to keep breathing, so they swim slowly, occasionally surfacing for air, allowing half their brain to sleep at a time.” That means, NOAA says, when visitors come to bask in the presence of these great creatures, they must remain at least 50 yards, or half a football field, away from the dolphins, and also limit their observation time to half an hour. Enjoy these marvels of the ocean carefully and respectfully, and we can all ensure that the spinning continues.