Spawning salmon in British Columbia make for interesting underwater encounters
In the Bahamas, snorkelers can rub snouts with swimming feral pigs
When you think of snorkeling, you most likely picture crystal-clear waters with beautiful – but traditional – aquatic life. You know, angel fish and the like.
But the mask, fins and snorkel set have some more “interesting” options than the usual suspects.
Featuring a variety of strange features and creatures from the deep, these bizarre and beautiful spots will have you rethinking what snorkeling is all about.
Snorkel with the salmon: Campbell River, British Columbia
It’s a surreal sight.
Every year in late summer and early autumn, a half million salmon make their way from the big waters of the Pacific to the cold flow of the Campbell River, on the northern end of Canada’s Vancouver Island.
These massive fish – sockeye, Chinook, coho and pinks – can grow to more than four feet in length and weigh upward of 100 pounds.
Here for their once-in-a-lifetime spawn, they’ve come to drop 300,000 eggs in these clear, clean, safe waters, and then die.
A local company called Destiny River outfits swimmers (for $125 CAD, less than $100 USD) with a wetsuit and a mask and drops them in the heart of the action, where they then float, face-down, a few miles, all the way to the sea, through a strange, subaquatic world, one swirling with thousands and thousands of prehistoric-looking monsters.
Swim with the pigs: Bahamas
The only permanent residents on uninhabited Big Major Cay in the Bahamas, feral pigs have become the ultimate beach bums, sunning themselves on the sand, then dashing into the blue waters of the Exumas.
It’s not clear how this family of some 20 pigs and piglets came to make their home on a deserted island; legend has it that their ancestors escaped a long-ago shipwreck, but today, they survive by drinking from the three natural springs on the island and eating treats dropped by visitors and sailors on passing boats.
Videos of these loveable, friendly porkers have gone viral, and you can now swim with them, getting into the warm, tropical water, strapping on a snorkel to meet them underwater, snout to snout.
Outfitters on the Exumas offer the trip for about $110.
No-harm jellyfish: Palau
A string of 445 mostly uninhabited limestone islands, Palau’s Rock Islands can feel like an otherworldly paradise, with almost-too-perfect multihued blue waters, hidden coves and verdant, tropical forest that comes right to the shore.
And hidden away on one called Eil Malk, Jellyfish Lake seems appropriately surreal. A closed ecosystem, the lake’s two species of jellyfish – the gold jellyfish and the moon jellyfish – are biologically distinct from their evolutionary relatives in nearby lagoons.
While, contrary to popular belief, they’re not actually stingless, their sting has been reduced to almost nothing, meaning that you can safely snorkel with thousands of these strange, spineless swimmers as they make their daily migration across the lake.
Local operators offer the experience (part of a daylong tour) for about $200 (which includes a mandatory $100 permit to access the lake).
Arctic belugas: Churchill, Manitoba
You usually hear them before you see them.
Often called the “polar bear capital of the world,” this northern outpost attracts even more whales, which come here to breed in the murky mouth of the Churchill River, right where it spills into the frigid waters of Hudson Bay.
More than 50,000 beluga whales – many of them the size of a compact car – can be seen at a time, and local outfitters take the adventurous out in a zodiac, where they’re immersed in subarctic waters that hover near the freezing mark (heavy-duty wetsuits or even dry suits, complete with hood and booties, keep swimmers warm).
These adorable creatures can be coy, swimming close enough to hear, at first, but not see, and snorkelers can sense their alien chirps and calls in the water.
But the beluga is a curious animal, and they inevitably swim up to check out snorkelers, sometimes as close as a few feet away, rolling over to their belly side in order to make eye contact, then slipping off, into the depths, leaving just an ephemeral wake, and an unforgettable moment.
Churchill-based Sea North offers the experience for about $200 USD while, just to the north, Churchill Wild incorporates the adventure into larger packages that include a stay at their lovely Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Shark Ray Alley: Belize
Jumping down into the water right next to a roiling mass of sharks may not, at first, feel like the best idea, but in Belize, it happens many times every day.
Sitting between Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, Shark Ray Alley is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
Preserved by its inclusion in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, fishermen long came here to clean their catch, in the process attracting inordinate amounts of sharks and stingrays.
Most of the former are nurse sharks, which may look menacing but are generally harmless. Often huge (up to 14 feet long), their name may come from the suction sound they make when scooping up bottom-dwelling crustaceans, similar to a nursing baby.
Local guides chum the waters, bringing in dozens of these brownish-gray sharks, which push and thrash and jockey for position.
Snorkelers jump in right next to them, getting within a couple of feet, close enough in these clear waters for crazy underwater photos of the subaquatic mayhem.
It’s included in full-day snorkel tours (about $70) that can be booked with local operators on either Ambergris or Caulker.
Close up with sea cows: Crystal River, Florida
One of the few places in the United States where you can interact with manatees, the warm waters of the Crystal River provide warm refuge for about 400 of these “sea cows,” which migrate from the cold of the Gulf of Mexico into nearby King’s Bay and up the river every winter.
Clear and calm, the Crystal is also home to a resident population of manatees (called dugongs in some parts of the world), and these conditions make it possible for even inexpert swimmers to interact with these whiskered, almost comical creatures.
Growing as long as 13 feet and weighing up to 3,000 pounds, getting up close and personal may, at first, feel intimidating, but snorkelers soon drop their guard with these gentle giants.
Operators in and around the town of Crystal River offer the tour for about $60.
Sea lions, sharks and penguins: Galapagos
It’s no secret that Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s great wildlife destinations.
Home to dozens of endemic species and famous for the fact that they have few natural predators, visitors often interact with the islands’ famous blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises and other fascinating animals on a level unknown pretty much anywhere else.
And that’s as true on land as it is in the water.
Environmentally friendly cruise companies like Ecoventura include snorkel and dive excursions with penguins, sharks, sea turtles and sea lions.
The latter, Galapagos sea lions, breed almost exclusively on the archipelago and often approach to within a couple of inches to inspect you, their whiskers almost brushing your face.
Big – sometimes more than 500 pounds – they torpedo through the dark waters below. After that adrenaline rush, you’ll be happy to chill out by swimming with some of the Galapagos green sea turtles that slowly paddle past on a regular basis.