In some very special places, taking a peek beneath rippling, salty waters reveals a kingdom of unique aquatic life that can be even more eye-opening than creatures to be found on the surface. Here are some underwater experiences to think about including in your trip!
I have a love for the sea. During my travels in Australia I trained as an Advanced Diver whilst working on a dive boat in the Whitsundays, then I worked on offshore pearl farms in Western Australia where whales were our only company for miles. In Indonesia, I qualified as an underwater photographer and I’ve also taught windsurfing in many locations, so I’m very fortunate to have experienced most of these sea creatures first hand and up close. We can help you include any of these places in your trip - just ask for advice!
There are many places in the world that offer contrived dolphin swimming experiences that I wouldn’t encourage supporting because they are held captive or semi-captive. If you’re after an authentic experience, head to Kaikoura in the South island of New Zealand where you can swim with pods of hundreds of wild dolphins.
In Kaikoura, New Zealand you can go swimming with wild dolphins and also kayak with seals in year round, so be sure to make a beeline for this pretty corner of the South Island. Kaikoura is also home to virtually every species of whale, thanks to its offshore ocean trench, so a whale sighting is also very likely!
I swam with these clever creatures in Kaikoura and was surrounded by pods of around 400 dolphins at a time. They were circling and playing around me for ages, and seemed genuinely interested and responsive to my singing the ‘Flipper’ soundtrack through my snorkel!
Everybody loves a turtle and these can be found on every continent except Antarctica. There are many places to seek out these docile reptiles, including Turtle Town in Maui, Hawaii and Akumal in Mexico (found between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum).
My favourite spot to swim with sea turtles is actually Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. The seas here are blessed with crystal clear, turquoise water and the beaches are to die for. The currents running parallel to the beach and the amazing visibility make this island a gem of a sport to swim with turtles.
I’ve spent weeks here, swimming and photographing these cool creatures. On an average swim I would expect to see between 5 and 10 turtles. On the beach, you’ll find a turtle conservation centre where you can see the baby hatchlings in the tanks before they are released back into the open sea.
The best time to visit the Gili Islands weather-wise is between May and October and they are an easy hop from neighbouring Bali, which means it’s easy to reach.
A Whale Shark is the biggest fish in the sea. Swimming with these enormous creatures may sound daunting as we all know that whales are huge and sharks can be intimidating but… they are neither a whale nor a shark. You can’t find a friendlier fish than the smiling, (veggie!) Whale Shark. They top many divers’ list of dream encounters, but they’re also known for being rather elusive. It’s probably easier to snorkel with these gentle giants than to hope for a scuba date.
I’ve been lucky enough to swim with Whale Sharks on Ningaloo reef in Australia where a spotter plane is used to locate the Whale Sharks, so your chances of a sighting are very high. I had a similar experience in Honduras in between scuba dives – another equally amazing and an even luckier experience!
Best places for whale shark diving
There are a few reliable places to spot these guys; some of the best being Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia (April – July), Mexico (June – September), and Honduras (February – April and October – December). Travel Nation’s Milly recently swam with two 7m long whale sharks on a tour from Exmouth – she says, “the experience was unparalleled and it’s hard to explain how fantastic it was!”
Seeing any sized Manta Ray is an amazing experience but in some corners of the world you’ll encounter Giant Manta Rays with wingspans of up to about 7.5m! Divers who have swum with these huge flying creatures report that Giant Mantas are really playful. They often hang out with the divers for the entire duration of the dive, playing in their bubble stream and generally being inquisitive.
One such place is Socorro, Mexico (aka the Revillagigedo Islands) which are located off the east coast. A 2-4 hour boat ride is needed to reach these uninhabited islands. If you want to meet the mantas in Mexico, March is the optimum time to go. As Milly discovered, you can also swim with Giant Manta Rays in north Western Australia.
Here are 3 hand-picked shark meetings not to be missed. Some people hate the idea of cage diving with Great White Sharks, but whilst it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, others will be fascinated to come face to face with these apex predators.
Two great places where you can lock eyes with great white sharks behind the safety of a submerged cage are South Australia and South Africa.
Another shark I recommend trying to fish out is the Thresher Shark in the Philippines. These animals have the most unusual, beautiful, sweeping tails. The island of Malapascua is the only place I know where you can get regular sightings of these elegant creatures. I dived here, and it involves getting to a drop off about 30 meters deep where you wait for the sharks to visit their cleaning station and get their daily clean from other fish. I saw four different Thresher Sharks on my dive and they tend to be spotted all year round here.
Swim with Hammerhead sharks
Another dream dive destination is the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. Here you can scuba in search of the crazy-looking Hammerhead Shark along with shoals of endemic species not found elsewhere. The best time to spot Hammerheads here is January to May, but between June and November you are more likely to see whale sharks - it’s a winning destination!
OK, you might not be expecting pigs to be on this list. However there is one unique place destination where you can swim with little pigs in a natural setting. Rumour has it that sailors left some pigs on an island in the hope of returning to eat them. Another story says that the piggies are the survivors of a ship wreck.
You can find these pigs on Pig beach, Big Major Spot Island in the Bahamas. You can take a boat trip to visit and snorkel with the friendly pigs who have learnt that visitors mean food. When your boat chugs up, you will have a welcoming party of pigs stampeding into the water to greet you (and they’ll be keen to scoff any food you may have to offer)!
Elephants are actually very good swimmers and for years, a rescued ex-logging elephant called Rajan who had retired to the Andaman Islands used to delight his carers with his aquatic pursuits. You used to be able to swim with him in a very carefully planned only-once-a-week dive, but sadly he died in 2014. Today there are a number of places you can still have an ethical experience up close to elephants, including in the water.
In Kanchanaburi Province in western Thailand, the Elephant World Sanctuary offers a day-long experience hanging out with the elephants, including bathing with them in the river where you can give them a good soak (if they don’t get you first!).
If this has inspired you to seek out some underwater encounters – I guarantee they will rank among the highlights of your round the world trip. If you’re already a keen diver, check out my trip inspiration to how to dive the world which might inspire you to turn your whole trip into a dive-based quest to explore the oceans around the world.
If you particularly want to experience any of these mentioned aquatic rendezvous, we can help you plan ahead and pre-book many of them so you don’t miss out. If you would like a tailor made quote for ocean lovers, contact us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.