Swimming with flamingos - and other aquatic animal adventures

Chris Leadbeater

Who needs a chlorinated pool and a splash in the shallow end when you can take to the water with a real-life, excitingly exotic animal? Nothing in this social-media age says “I’ve been swimming” quite like a photograph of you, smiling for the camera next to a winsome creature of the deep – ideally amid sparkling wavelets on a gloriously hot day.

The latest must-have in the spectacular mash-up that is you+beast+seaside+selfie is a snapshot with a flamingo. This has been sparked by a flurry of Instagram postings from the Caribbean island of Aruba (which, if you are wondering about geography, sits so far to the south and west of the region that it is practically part of Venezuela), where these birds of perfectly pink plumage are very much present and correct at “Flamingo Beach”.

What, where, why and who? This gorgeous golden crescent is on a private outcrop (the Renaissance Aruba Private Island) owned by the Renaissance Aruba Resort and Casino – a five-star hotspot on the island’s west coast (double rooms from US$207 (£159) a night; renaissancearubaresortandcasino.com).

Complimentary water taxis (the journey takes about eight minutes) are on hand to convey guests to a sandy paradise where flamingos idle in the shallows.

If there are questions as to why the birds live here on a year-round basis – and there should be, as flamingos tend to migrate, even if only short distances – they are currently being swallowed by a tsunami of images of young tourists swimming among, and posing with, their new avian friends. And why not? The combination of sunset-coloured feathers and that new white bikini is always likely to be easy on the eye.

A little too tame for your liking? Fair enough. Then there are other ways to take a quick photogenic dip with members of the animal kingdom. There’s a selection here, in fact…

Swimming with… pigs

What could be cuter than a pig in water? Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Danita Delimont

Yes, pigs. Those swarthy packages of ham and bacon, which ordinarily restrict their muddy antics to dry land – but in the case of the Bahamas, are known to take to the sea.

Famously, they can be found on the west side of Big Major Cay, an uninhabited sliver of the Exuma archipelago, where curly tails and snuffling snouts are regularly spotted on the shore and in the waves. Again, questions have to be asked – and not just about how these wild beasts came to be living on a Caribbean island (surviving a shipwreck is one theory).

In March, 10 of them were found dead – a mooted cause being sand ingestion, the result of tourists throwing snacks onto the shore, which the pigs then devour along with an unhealthy amount of the beach. But for now, tours which let visitors swim with them are still possible – and are available through the tourist board (bahamas.com/swimmingpigs).

Swimming with… whale sharks

For the full “I’m with Poseidon” experience, there is little to beat a swimming excursion with one of the true titans of the deep. The whale shark is a marine best-of-both-worlds – technically the latter, it very much resembles the former thanks to its enormous size (the largest recorded example of the species was almost 42ft (12.65m) long.

Happily, despite such stature, they are very much gentle giants, feeding dozily on plankton – perfect companions for a day in snorkel mask and flippers.

They are especially visible in the seas off Western Australia between March and July – not least at Ningaloo Reef, a 160-mile coral wonder that cannot match its Great Barrier rival for length, but which can certainly compete with it on wildlife.

Whale sharks are especially visible in Western Australia Credit: © 2008 Trent Burkholder/Trent Burkholder Photography

Local tour operators, including Whale Sharks Exmouth (ningaloowhalesharks.com) and Ningaloo Reef Dive (ningalooreefdive.com), both offer excursions which slip out of harbour in search of these unflappable oceanic behemoths.

Swimming with… great white sharks

If the word “shark” has more appeal than the word “whale” when it comes to swimming, there is always the extreme option of taking to the water with great whites. Of course, in this case, it is advisable to confine your aquatic endeavours to a sturdy dive cage and leave the swimming to the planet’s most fearsome marine predator.

South Africa is an obvious destination here – the swells off the country’s long coastline are a playground for these fierce fish, as occasional attacks on surfers demonstrate.

It's fine, it's a good idea Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Sue Flood

But you will be safe – if on your nerves’ edge – if you book a trip with the likes of Great White Shark Tours, who operate out of Van Dyks Bay, 100 miles south-west of Cape Town (sharkcagediving.net).

Swimming with… stingrays

The death of Australian naturalist Steve Irwin in 2006 – in a freak incident with a stingray – has rather harmed the image of these (largely) docile creatures. And the Cayman Islands remain a great place to meet them.

Grand Cayman in particular trades on their fondness for its warm waters – “Stingray City” has become the name for a series of shallow sandbars where these unfailingly flat fish congregate in large numbers.

Admittedly, the catalyst for these crowd scenes is the number of tourist boats which roll up here, awash with day-trippers and the promise of squid chunks tossed into the shallows.

Stingrays can be encountered in the Cayman Islands Credit: Stephen Frink/Stephen Frink

But if you dream of feeding one of these almost otherworldly animals by hand, this is probably the place to try it. Stingray City Trips (stingraycitytrips.com) is one of several tour operators.

Swimming with… manatees

For animal-included swimming minus even a hint of danger, you could fall back on the soft option of the manatee. The West Indian incarnation of this mild-mannered and serene species – the popular name “sea cow” describes it perfectly – is prevalent in Florida, where it haunts rivers, tidal estuaries and coastal waters.

It has not always done so without peril – motor boats and propellers have done considerable harm to the animal, to the point that it was listed as “endangered” as recently as the Seventies (its numbers have recovered sufficiently that it is now considered to be “vulnerable”).

Manatee numbers have recovered in Florida

Crystal River, on the west (Gulf) coast of Florida, is a manatee hotspot – you can splash about with these hulking herbivorous mammals here with River Ventures Swimming (riverventures.com).


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