There are two kinds of beach vacation. One includes planting yourself in a lounge chair and sipping umbrella drinks for seven days. The other incorporates a little more adventure. This can involve anything from paragliding to bike touring. The more adventurous types may opt for a bungee jump. If you aren't a thrill seeker you may prefer a guided walking tour or hike. Lovers of the sea will no doubt scuba dive or snorkel. Both of these water sports have long been favorites of the adventurous traveler, and scuba has grown steadily over the years. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) has maintained statistics on the number of scuba certifications worldwide since 1967. That year only 3,226 people earned their scuba certification. In each year from 2001 to 2007, more than 900,000 people took and passed a scuba certification course [source: padi.com].
If you've ever been scuba diving, then you've had some kind of close encounter with a sea creature. Tame divers swim the reefs in search of shiny schools of fish, sea turtles and jellyfish. When an occasional sea snake or barracuda swims by to provide a little thrill, most divers are content. But just like those who prefer more adventure with their vacations, some divers think these smaller ocean dwellers just won't do -- they want to interact with larger fair. Luckily for them there are some larger sea creatures they can swim with. There are even vacation packages built around the fairly new fad. It's generally safe to do so, although there are dangers anytime you interact with an animal in its natural environment.
Swimming with Whales and Dolphins
If you're a scuba diver and the small fish aren't cutting it, there are some larger sea creatures you can swim with. Humpback whales are notoriously docile and you can get up close and personal in the waters off the Dominican Republic or the South Pacific island of Tonga. The Silver Bank is part of a marine sanctuary in the Dominican Republic and one of the few places where humans are allowed in the water with these huge ocean mammals. Swimming with the whales is limited to what's called a "soft-in-water encounter." This means that you float near the surface of the water and wait for the whales to come to you, which they may or may not do depending on their level of curiosity. You're only allowed to use a mask, snorkel and fins -- no scuba equipment is permitted. This passive approach is at the heart of all "swimming with sea creature" encounters. The idea is that you're merely a spectator and not a participant.
The dolphin is another sea creature on many people's list to swim with. The good news is that dolphins are generally tolerant of humans. Unfortunately, they aren't particularly interested in us either. Dolphins swim really fast and dive deep, and humans just can't keep up. So your fantasy of hanging onto Flipper's fin while it pulls you around the ocean isn't going to happen. You'd need to swim with a trained dolphin in captivity for that, and thanks to SeaWorld, you can do it. Many wildlife experts decry swimming with sea creatures in captivity because it disrupts the natural habitat, but there's a market for it. The "Dolphin Aqua Adventure Program" at SeaWorld allows anyone over 14 years old to swim with dolphins, provided they pay the $225 fee for 20 minutes of water time.
Swimming with Sea Lions, Stingrays and Sharks
Sea lions are another fun sea creature you can frolic with. At Norris Rock, British Columbia, thousands of sea lions make the trek from Alaska and California each year to feed on herring. Adventurous types jump in and swim along with these mammals, known for being extremely playful with humans. One thing the United Kingdom has a lot of is grey seals. Colonies all over the islands of England and Scotland are full of seals and tourists ready to swim. An ecotourism company in Baird Bay, Australia, offers half-day sea lion swimming tours. If you can't make it to Australia, venture to Canada where you can swim with sea lions for $150 inside the West Edmonton Mall.
Stingrays and sharks are two of the more feared sea creatures you can actually swim with, provided you're with someone who knows what they're doing. You don't want to swim unprotected with a great white, but you can get close to lemons, grays, white-tip and black-tip reef sharks without the need for a shark cage. Bora Bora has plenty of boats that offer shark dives. They chum the water in order to get shark activity, but feeding sharks is a controversial issue because it stalls their normal feeding habits. The giant whale shark is a trendy swim these days too, mainly because of their predictable migration pattern, which makes them easy to spot. These gentle giants can grow as long as 50 feet (15.24 meters) but only feed on tiny plankton and krill and aren't a threat to humans. The only place in the Western Hemisphere you can find a whale shark is at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga. And you guessed it -- you can swim with them for a mere $225.
If you go to the Cayman Islands, you can swim with wild stingrays. These rays are pretty docile and used to people because of all the activity and the fact that humans can buy buckets of squid to feed them. Associating people with food is dangerous business if you ask wildlife experts, who oppose this brand of ecotourism. But once these tours become popular, it's difficult to stop locals from making money off a willing tourist.
Dangers of Swimming with Sea Creatures
All of the sea creatures in this article are known in some parts of the world for being tame and docile enough to encounter face-to-face. But each one has also been known to attack or bite humans on occasion, as well. Any kind of shark, aside from the whale shark, is capable of biting a human. Most sharks aren't interested in people, but a scared or surprised shark can always strike. Another danger is if a shark thinks you're something else. A woman swimming with seals in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in 2003 was attacked and killed by a shark that most likely thought she was a seal.
Seals and sea lions have also been known to bite humans. They generally investigate something by nibbling on it, but those nibbles can turn into more aggressive behavior if they feel threatened. A man in La Jolla, Calif., was clawed and bitten by a sea lion in 2003 during his bid to show the local press that there's no danger of swimming with the sea lions there. The injuries were minor and he was treated and released from the hospital that same day.
If you surprise a stingray, it could respond by defending itself with its sharp barbed stinger. Deaths from stingrays are rare, but Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray in 2006 after it delivered a blow from the stinger directly into Irwin's heart. Stingrays can also bite you with their small, but sharp teeth. Rays are a part of the elasmobranch family along with sharks and both have very strong jaws.
Being in the ocean can be a dangerous environment or completely safe. Even the most feared sea creature, the shark, rarely attacks humans. But just ask the fisherman in St. Augustine, Fla., about the barracuda that jumped into his boat and bit him on the stomach. This happened in 2003, proving that sometimes, even the unlikeliest of things can happen when you're dealing with the ocean.
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More Great Links
- "PADI Statistics." PADI. 2009.http://www.padi.com/scuba/about-padi/PADI-statistics/default.aspx#GraphA
- "Soft-In-Water Encounters: Swimming with Humpback Whales." Conscious Breath Adventures. 2009.http://www.consciousbreathadventures.com/soft-in-water-encounters.html
- "Sea Lion Encounters." West Edmonton Mall. 2009.http://www.westedmall.com/play/swim-with-sea-lions.asp
- "Shark kills woman swimming with seals." Free Republic. August 20, 2003.http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/967273/posts
- "Swimming with dolphins, sea lions and sharks." Openroad.com. 2009.http://www.openroad.com.au/travel_onthewater_swimmingwithdolphinssealionssharks.asp
- "Swimming with Sea Creatures." Daringdestinations.com. 2009.http://www.daringdestinations.com/swimming-with-sea-creatures
- "Swimming with Seals." The Guardian. Sept. 29, 2007.http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/sep/29/guardianspecial4.guardianspecial223
- "Swimming with Whale Sharks." Lonelyplanet.com. 2009.http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travelstories/podcast/whaleshark_1007
- Berger, Karen. "Vacation with a bite: Go swimming with sharks." MSNBC. Feb. 19, 2009.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29187333/
- Fausset, Richard. "Swimming with the whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium." Los Angeles Times. June 19, 2008.http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/19/nation/na-sharks19
- Fortin, Judy. "Swimming with whale sharks helps veterans feel whole again." CNN. 2009.http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/conditions/11/10/hm.veterans.swimming.rehab.sharks/index.html
- Kann, Elizabeth. "Becoming Bait." Go World Travel Magazine. 2009.http://www.goworldtravel.com/ex/aspx/articleGuid.%7B5B6BDDCD-8A2F-4252-9576-13DB7AD60618%7D/xe/article.htm
- Schorn, Daniel. "Swimming With Sharks." CBS News. Sept. 16, 2007.http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/12/06/60minutes/main1099368.shtml
- Walker, Madeline. "Swimming with Sea Creatures." GreenMuze. Jan. 12, 2009.http://www.greenmuze.com/blogs/guest-bloggers/723-swimming-with-sea- creatures.html
- Wasserman, Elizabeth. "Swimming with sea lions the 'last frontier'." National Review of Medicine. 2009.http://www.nationalreviewofmedicine.com/issue/2004_04_15/feature01_07.htm
- Watson, Angus. "Swimming with sea lions in the Galpagos." Times Online. 2009.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/holiday_type/wildlife/article2745109.ece