Swim with a cacophony of creatures in these unique underwater encounters.
One of the most frequently asked questions that visitors to Clearwater have is, “Where can I swim with dolphins?” Unfortunately, there are no opportunities for swimming encounters with any animals in Clearwater. The closest you can get are the Animal Care Experiences – dolphin, shark and stingrays – at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. For now, these experiences have been suspended due to COVID-19.
Over the years, I’ve personally participated in many such swimming encounters. Nervously swimming amidst black tip sharks on one cruise excursion in French Polynesia, Doug and I clumsily booked it to the boat when the tour guide began throwing juicy chum into the water around us. We didn’t want a chunk taken out of us too!
It was quite the thrill to swim above and around rays in Stingray City in the Bahamas; these marine animals love the tactile sensation of being touched. Their tail barbs were still intact, however. They after all, still live in the wild. We also kissed giant stingrays in Grand Turk, which made for a terrific photo opp.
We’ve also swam with dolphins in multiple locations throughout Florida, including Marineland in St. Augustine, Hawk’s Cay Resort in the Keys and Orlando’s Discovery Cove, where I almost drowned when I came face-to-face with a barracuda – not realizing there was a wall of glass separating us!
We even went swimming with a white tiger cub at Dade City Wild Things – which has since been closed down when multiple animal abuses unfortunately came to light. They also offered an alligator swim. We didn’t take them up on that offer!
So to answer that all important question, “Where Can I Swim With Marine Animals?”Here’s the answer:
For those looking for dolphin swim encounters, there are many to choose from in locations all over Florida. Sharing the water with an animal one on one with no barrier separating you is an experience never to be forgotten.
Riding on the back of that theme, other aquatic excursions started emerging in the state with sea lions, stingrays, sharks, whales, and more.
In 1938, Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine first opened as Marine Studios — the world’s largest aquarium and the first oceanarium because it housed multiple species of animals. Marineland pioneered face-to-face interactions with dolphins. Scenes in movies such as Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon were filmed here.
In 2006, Marineland reopened as Marineland Dolphin Conservation Center — a modern 1.3 million gallon facility which focused on education and intimate animal-human interactions.
Dolphin encounters are popular precisely because of the mammals’ intelligence and willingness to tow swimmers, twirl, dance, jump, talk (in dolphin language of course), wave and lovingly plant kisses. Kids of all ages thrill to this glorious glissade of a lifetime.
Laura Bellamy of Louisville, Kentucky, said her experience swimming with dolphins changed her perspective on marine life. “I never really appreciated how special sea life can be,” Bellamy said. “I instantly formed a friendly bond swimming with them and seeing how expressive they are.”
Dance with the dolphins at Marineland Dolphin Adventure, 9600 Oceanshore Boulevard, St. Augustine, (877) 933-3402, www.marineland.net.
The Florida Aquarium offers a Shark Swim Program. This dynamic group experience allows between one and four guests to enjoy a snorkel-like adventure alongside more than 1,000 fish including stingrays, barracudas, a sea turtle, and a sand tiger shark. This experience gives guests (age 9+) a unique VIP aquatic adventure and is recorded using small action cameras. Guests will receive a copy of this footage after the experience. Scuba certification not required.
Swim with sharks at The Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Dr, Tampa, (813) 273-4000, flaquarium.org.
In 1946, the McKenney family created a live menagerie of sea critters in Islamorada called Theater of the Sea (TOTS). This 17-acre property of waterfalls and tropical gardens is home to a variety of animals including Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, rays, reptiles and birds. A three-acre lagoon, built from part of Henry Flagler’s old railroad, was turned it into a natural home for fish, sea horses and lobsters. TOTS gets 100,000 visitors per year and 20,000 participate in the animal encounters of dolphins, sea lions, sharks and stingrays.
TOTS started the first ever swim-with-a-sea lion experience in the state. Five California sea lions live here. Sea Lion Supervisor Allison Collins has worked with most of TOTS’s animals such as turtles and rays. “Sea lions are also called sea dogs or dog mermaids because they have a lot of playful personality and agility.”
While the dolphin interaction at TOTS is popular, some actually prefer the sea lion encounters because they are so expressive. They smile, stick their tongues out and pose for photos.
TOTS also offers shark and stingray encounters. The supervisor of TOTS’s fish and reptile department, Nelly Rivera, said, “Our shark encounters are especially popular with boys around 6 or 7, many of whom are wearing shark t-shirts.” Rivera explained that one trainer minds seven sharks and feeds them while another brings a shark one at a time to the guests so they can see its belly and rows of teeth.
Stingray encounters are thrilling because guests can feed them. In addition, rays enjoy the tactile sensation of being handled and rubbing their smooth bodies against people.
Get your sea groove on at Theater of the Sea, 84721 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, (305) 664-2431, www.theaterofthesea.com.
All-inclusive Discovery Cove in Orlando provides a number of opportunities to interact and swim with marine animals. Besides dolphin swims, guests can discover a below-the-surface world teeming with a variety of sea life or snorkel in deeper water with thousands of exotic fish and graceful rays in The Grand Reef.
For many people, overcoming the fear of being in the water with stingrays instantly evaporates upon first contact. “A stingray swam right up and actually wanted me to touch and pet it,” said Duane Murphy, who was visiting with his family.
Discovery Cove also features SeaVenture, an underwater walking tour where guests wear dive helmets and view sharks. While guests cannot directly swim with otters, Freshwater Oasis features wading adventures and face-to-face encounters with both otters and marmosets.
Find new friends at Discovery Cove, 6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando, (877) 557-7404, www.discoverycove.com.
The Beluga Interaction Program at SeaWorld Orlando is one of the few programs in the world where guests can experience up-close, hands-on interactions with graceful and highly sociable beluga whales. Limited to only a few guests each day, participants enter the water in wetsuits and sit waist deep in the chilly 55-degree water for a shallow-water encounter with in the whales’ habitat at Wild Arctic where they can touch these gentle animals.
Listen to a siren song of a whale at SeaWorld, 7007 Sea World Dr., Orlando, (888) 800-5447, www.seaworldparks.com.
People have been swimming with manatees for years. These gentle creatures, known affectionately as sea cows, made their way from the West Indies to Florida and found it to be a perfect place to call home. The warm spring systems from Tampa to the Suwanee average 72 degrees. In the winter, many manatees along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina and Georgia make their way south to the Florida Keys and head north to the warm waters of Crystal River in Citrus County. Crystal River is the only place in Florida to swim with manatees in winter.
Manatees were once on the endangered list, but their population has grown from 100 in 1972 to about 6,000 now. Several manatee tours are offered in Crystal River. Charlie Slider owns Manatee Tour & Dive. “They’re incredibly curious about people,” he said. “Tours are a strictly no-touch policy. We take the passive observation approach.”
Captain Glenn Wilsey, former tour guide at MT&D, said that manatees recognized his voice. “One mother manatee would leave her baby by his boat so I could babysit as she grazes for grasses in the river,” he said.
Five captains from MT&D also serve as water guides. After donning wet suits, participants float in the water with the aid of plastic noodles under their arms. No fins are allowed to prevent stirring up sediment into the water. No one is allowed to swim after a manatee, but instead stop and observe the animals from a distance.
Check off an item on your bucket list with Manatee Tour & Dive, 267 N.W. 3rd St., Crystal River, (888) 732-2692, www.manateetoursusa.com.
Whether your animals of choice have fur, scales or skin, it’s one of life’s great kicks to share space and a little bit of social time with them. Indulge yourself and celebrate the camaraderie of an encounter with fellow creatures from the animal kingdom with no barriers separating you.
Feature image by Kelly S. Kelly at Marineland