Image: Sea turtles, The Galapagos Islands
Tammy Peluso  /  iStockphoto.com
In the Galapagos Islands, divers and snorkelers have the rare possibility of getting in the water with dozens of three-foot green sea turtles with primeval eyes and graceful flippers. What's most attractive about this adventure is that since the turtles have no natural underwater predators, they're not afraid of humans.
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updated 7/8/2008 9:46:35 AM ET 2008-07-08T13:46:35

If bonding with underwater species is your idea of a good time, various commercial and educational opportunities exist worldwide to study, swim beside, dive next to and possibly even communicate with a variety of large, friendly, dangerous and/or simply curious sea creatures. In fact, outfitters may promise to put you in the water with just about everything but the Loch Ness Monster. Not a seasoned scuba diver? No worries: Many outfitters even offer trips for snorkelers and swimmers.

David Fishman, editor-in-chief and publisher of Fathoms: The Magazine of the Underwater World, explains how chance encounters have led to a new type of tourism.

“It begins with people who have a passion for the oceans and get excited seeing underwater habitats,” he says. “They start by cruising a coral reef and seeing a whole other world teeming with life. From there, they seek out trophy experiences that take their interest to the next level. Instead of a chance encounter with a dolphin or a turtle sweeping past, they ask: How can I get in the water with a whale shark?” Even watching the spawning of coral in Bonaire in the Caribbean — which happens at an exact time that's synchronized with the phases of the moon — can be thrilling. Fishman says, “There's an eeriness and sense of anticipation that all the animals are waiting for something special.”

A new industry has grown up around meeting this request as often as possible. Says Fishman, “Dive and tour operators provide expert guides who know when, where, how, and at what depth you’re likely to see various animals.”

Bill Acker, owner and CEO of Yap Divers in Micronesia, adds, “It has never been easier for guests to enjoy safe, responsible animal encounters. There are excellent resorts and operations all over the world and ... even remote areas are relatively easy to get to.” Known as a diver's paradise, Micronesia offers two incredible underwater animal adventures: swimming with enormous 10-foot manta rays and with large, golden non-stinging jellyfish.

But just because a dive shop or tour operator has a slick web page and makes a few promises doesn’t mean that the company will act responsibly to protect both you and the animals. Ron Steven, a dive instructor and environmental artist, suggests that consumers ask outfitters lots of questions.

“Most operators offering an interactive experience with any critter in the wild must have accreditation and permits, and have a trained crew and an appropriate craft,” he says. “They should have an operating manual that thoroughly explains what you’re getting into and an outline of what’s going to happen, how they’re going to deal with an emergency or accident or if an encounter gets too close. Ask an outfitter if it has the right permissions, staff training tools, and procedures for interacting with wildlife.”

Acker adds, “Word-of-mouth is huge, so if potential visitors know someone who has had a positive experience, that’s one way to tell who is really operating responsibly versus just talking responsibly. Having been in business in one location for a long time is another fairly good indicator.” Consumers can also consult dive web sites, and seek out operators who’ve received awards from consumer publications and environmental groups.

Image: Coral, Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
David J. Phillip  /  AP Photo
Each fall off the coast of Bonaire, nearly a dozen species of coral spawn at an exact time that's synchronized with the phases of the moon. Divers can get in shallow water and enjoy a pristine night dive while waiting for the appointed moment. As David Fishman describes it, "You can see the translucent orange eggs in the coral polyps' mouths waiting to be released.
In addition to the thrill of swimming with the fishes, such experiences are important for another reason. Acker reflects, “These encounters are magical when done right and people who have experienced these magical moments with underwater animals come away dedicated to preserving the experience for future generations.” For example, awareness has been raised about Southern Australia's cuttlefish population through diving tourism — photographers and environmentalists have undertaken a grassroots effort to make the cuttlefish mating a tourist attraction to protect the creatures from fishermen, who are drawn to the large aggregation of protein.

Finally, you may be wondering just how dangerous these outings really are — to humans and to the animals. Although some of the animals do pose a potential threat, many people have already safely enjoyed the trip you’re on. Talking about a particular lemon shark dive he participated in, Ron Steven says, “Any shark in the water is potentially dangerous, but they’re not that interested in humans. We don’t look like anything they should be eating. They won’t come up and savage your leg off. We do more damage to sharks than they’ve ever done to us.”

That said, the open sea is anything but a petting zoo, so if you're going to swim with the sharks and strut with the stingrays, keeping the crafty creatures at arm's length is never a bad idea.

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