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5 Places to Swim With Marine Life

Here’s where to snorkel or scuba dive responsibly among creatures of the sea

spinner image a sea lion swimming next to two snorkelers
Travelers can snorkel near playful sea lions on day trips from La Paz, Mexico.
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With a ripple of silvery bubbles and a blur of black and white feathers, three football-shaped penguins zoom beneath me.

I plunge underwater to get a better look. That first glimpse of the speedy, waterborne birds gives me such a thrill that I squeal through my snorkel.

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spinner image two penguins in the Galapagos Islands
Snorkelers can swim close to penguins on excursions in the Galapagos Islands.
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Galapagos penguins weigh about 5 pounds each and look like they’re wearing itsy-bitsy tuxedos. Propelled by furiously flapping, boomerang-like wings, they zigzag through the chilly water, hunting nearly invisible inch-long fish.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, about 1,800 of these penguins live in the Galapagos Islands, where they look out of place perched on sunbaked rocks. But currents merge here, sweeping in nutrients and providing a blast of cold water the birds need to survive in the tropics.

Tour companies, including Ecoventura (prices start at $9,750 per person) and Natural Habitat Adventures (prices from $7,995 per person), offer opportunities to swim with the penguins.

Here are four additional destinations to snorkel or scuba dive with sea creatures.

spinner image a sea lion swimming in Mexico
Scuba divers and snorkelers can see a colony of curious sea lions near Espiritu Santo Island in Mexico.
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Sea lions, La Paz, Mexico

Scuba diving with baby sea lions at Los Islotes, a rocky outcropping near Espiritu Santo Island, feels a bit like crashing recess at the local elementary school. 

Beagle-size pups pinwheel overhead, while others pause to nibble the tips of swim fins and play with seagull feathers.

Los Islotes is home to a playful colony of sea lions frolicking on the boulders above the waves and in the rocky overhangs beneath the surface.

Watch the action from above while snorkeling during a day trip with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (prices start at $175). Or arrange a scuba dive and snorkel with the Cortez Club (prices start at $250). 

spinner image a whale shark in Mexico
Hundreds of whale sharks congregate off the Yucatan Coast in Mexico during the summer.
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Whale sharks, Isla Mujeres, Mexico 

Every summer, hundreds of toothless, school-bus-size whale sharks congregate off the Yucatan Coast, where they skim the surface of the ocean, slurping up plankton. 

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, and they’re considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But as the interest in seeing the animals in the wild increases, so does the incentive for protecting them.

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Visitors can arrange the roughly two-hour trip (including boat ride) from Isla Mujeres to the congregation site, which shifts depending on currents. Once there, you can jump in the water with a guide to snorkel alongside the graceful creatures. Tour operators for snorkeling with the whale sharks include Isla Whale Sharks (prices from $150), Whale Shark Adventures ($145) and Solo Buceo (prices from $199).

spinner image snorkelers swim near humpbacks in the Dominican Republic
Visitors can arrange a trip to snorkel alongside humpback whales in the Silver Bank off the coast of the Dominican Republic.
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Humpback whales, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

Each January, thousands of humpback whales migrate from the North Atlantic to the Caribbean where they mate and raise calves in the protected shallow waters of the Silver Bank about 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic. To see them, you’ll have to book a week aboard one of three boats permitted to bring passengers to the 40-square-mile designated whale sanctuary. From the mainland, it takes up to 10 hours to reach the Silver Bank. Once there, strict guidelines surround any interactions between humans and whales. 

But what a show. Adult whales, up to 56 feet long with pectoral fins like surfboards and eyes as big as softballs, swim with babies at their side. Something about looking a wild whale in the eye will make you feel like an underwater giant has peered into your soul.

Tenders carry passengers and crew members out to look for cooperative whales each day on tours with Aquatic Adventures (prices start at $4,195). Snorkelers are only allowed in the water with them when the whales are relaxed. Oceanic Society also offers trips to swim with the whales at the Silver Bank (prices start at $6,365).

spinner image a snorkeler swimming near a mantra ray in Hawaii
Scuba divers can float near manta rays at night during a visit to the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
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Manta rays, Kona, Hawai‘i

The Big Island is known for its manta rays, and one of the best places to see them is just offshore from Kona International Airport (KOA) — at night.

There, floodlights attract plankton, which chums up the creatures that remind me of swirling magic carpets.

Divers line up on the ocean floor between 35 and 53 feet deep and shine their lights upward while snorkelers, clinging to flotation devices, point their lights downward. Everybody gets a front-row seat to the performance.

During my trip to see the manta rays, I sat on the rocky ocean bottom for 45 minutes as a 14-foot ray and a pair of 10-footers flapped their enormous wings, making huge looping rolls as they scooped up plankton. Numerous dive shops, including Kona Honu Divers (prices start at $199) and Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii offer the outing as a one-tank night dive ($170).

You also can do the excursion as a snorkeling trip with tour operators including Ocean Encounters ($124) and Big Island Divers (prices start at $129). Although there’s nothing quite like sitting on the ocean floor watching the mantas go by. 

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