There are few things more special than connecting with animals in their natural habitat. But in order to protect and preserve the species of our planet, and take personal safety into account, it's not always possible to get up close with wild animals. The beauty of water is that it creates a boundary while still suspending both human and animal in the same medium. From pigs stranded on a deserted island to Earth's largest mammal, these destinations pose a unique opportunity that animal lovers won't want to miss.
Remember to always choose ethical experiences when interacting with animals. Look for an encounter that doesn't allow touching and doesn't alter the animal's natural behavior in any way. Here are some of the best places to swim with animals.
Pigs - Exuma, Bahamas
The famous swimming pigs of Exuma aren’t just a tourist attraction, can be found on an uninhabited atoll known as Big Major Cay. There are several different origin stories of how the pigs arrived at this island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, from a shipwreck to a failed farm experiment, but the true story remains unknown. The pigs are essentially wild, but peaceful, allowing visitors to swim alongside them, though you'll still want to maintain a safe distance and not pester the large creatures. Whether or not you’ll have some piggy company, Big Major Cay is a gorgeous place to take a dip and admire the tropical Bahamian scenery. Base yourself in Nassau or the nearby island of Staniel Cay for the fastest trip to splash with these pigs.
Manatees - Crystal River, Florida, U.S.
Florida’s warm springs draw in an unlikely mammal come the winter months. The lovable, lumbering manatee makes its way into these natural incubators, in search of a warm place to call home and find food. Spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico, the river deltas that lead into nearby bays are the perfect pathway for the manatees to seek out their winter home. Crystal River is a beautiful place to explore in general for us humans and even better when the sea cows come to play. Be sure to follow ethical guidelines for swimming with manatees. Never approach them, touch them, or make sudden movements that could frighten them. Manatees are incredibly slow-moving, gentle creatures and deserve the same respect they give to humans.
Humpback Whales - Vava'u, Tonga
Every July through October, humpback whales grace the waters of Tonga on their annual migration to Antarctica. This is the perfect opportunity to swim with these gargantuan mammals, not only the largest on the planet but also some of the most gentle. The tiny atoll of Vava’u is the best hub for whale watching tours with most excursions lasting three to five days. This ensures you’ll have a wide window in which to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants. Those who have been lucky enough to come face-to-face with humpback whales have reported feeling an indescribable connection, spanning the species barrier. Intrepid snorkelers may even see young calves, sticking close to their protective mothers. Tonga is known for being a breeding ground for humpbacks, where they come to give birth, nurse, and mate.
Sea Lions - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Also known as the “Enchanted Islands”, Ecuador’s Galapagos archipelago is one of the most fauna rich environments in the world. Home to a myriad of animals, including sea-faring iguanas and its famous tortoises, the islands are also the perfect place to splash alongside sea lions. Sea lions are incredibly inquisitive, friendly creatures and love to frolic in both the ocean and on land. They often twirl and glide around snorkelers, curiously wondering what exactly they are. Pinnipeds in general make for a great wildlife encounter as they are often docile yet highly entertaining animals. The island of Santa Cruz is one of the best places in the Galapagos to splash around with these silly sea creatures although it's never guaranteed. The best time of year to attempt swimming alongside these “sea dogs” is May to January when adolescent sea lions are plentiful.
Horses - Cornwall, England
Gallop through the sand, sea breeze in your hair, before your horses trot straight into the Celtic Sea; this is the kind of magic that awaits you in Cornwall. Jump on the back of these noble steeds for a ride along the local Long Rock Beach and a swim come high tide. With the historic St. Michael’s Mount looming in the distance and the surprisingly turquoise waters of Cornwall's beaches, you might start to wonder whether this is really England. Horses the world over love to swim and the Cornwall swimming horses are no exception. Grab your stirrups and saddle and hop on. This activity is even recommended for beginners.
Manta Rays - Cocos Island, Costa Rica
Cocos Island is the world’s largest uninhabited island and one of the best places to dive with Giant Oceanic manta rays. The waters off Cocos Island are known for their manta “cleaning stations” where fish come to nibble off the creatures' dead skin and parasites. These giant rays aren’t the only sea creatures you’ll encounter. Cocos Island is also home to huge schools of hammerhead sharks, bottlenose dolphins, and whale sharks, to name a few. This remote island can be difficult to reach as it lies over 260 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. If you’re up for a challenge it’s well worth the trek.