Into the Wild
By Debra Pamplin.
Photography courtesy of Discover Crystal River Florida and Gulf World Marine Park
Vacations throughout the southern states are full of adventure and one-of-a-kind opportunities. At the top of some families’ list might just be the desire to swim with marine life. Here are some places to keep in mind the next time you want to swim with Flipper or Moby!
Gulf World Marine Park – Panama City Beach, Fla.
Guests of this marine life park have four different options to swim with dolphins. Each category offers a different experience. Each category includes the dorsal tow, kiss, hand target, hugs, handshakes and free time.
The Royal swim is listed as the most unique and most fun, because it offers the foot-push. Within this trained command, the dolphins will push you up from the soles of your feet, rising you above the water.
This is probably the most common method for swimming with dolphins. Guests hold onto the pectoral fins and are taken on an exciting and fast-paced ride.
This program is open to all ages, and is setup to be a fun learning and meeting experience. In this session, guests will learn how to use their hand as a target for the dolphin to jump into.
An exclusive program to Gulf World, guests can experience interactions with both the rough-toothed dolphin and a bottlenose dolphin. Activities include handshake with both dolphins, slide out photo, double dorsal, mimics and high energy. This experience is approximately 30 minutes, and in a group.
Three Sisters Springs – Crystal River, Florida
Three Sisters Springs is an ideal location to go swimming with manatees. Three Sisters Springs provides perfect elements that prompt the manatee populations to migrate to the area. The most popular times to see these majestic gentle giants is mid-November through late March. Swimming with the manatees in their natural habitat can be exciting and fun, but there are a few rules of respect that should always be followed. Here are some manatee manners to keep in mind:
While Manatees are laid back and calm, they can get stressed if they feel targeted. While it is okay to swim above them, they should never be chased.
When snorkeling, it is recommended that swimmer’s feet should stay near the top of the water, as feet dangling toward the bottom of the river could scare the manatees. The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act has deemed it illegal to harass, disturb or hug a manatee. The species is listed as vulnerable on the International Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Manatees in general are friendly and curious. It isn’t uncommon for swimmers to be nuzzled and nudged by the gentle manatees. Allowing them to approach you is key. A short video is mandatory before the adventure begins at Three Sisters Springs, which outlines all the rules and guidelines for a fun and healthy interaction with the manatees.
In Mississippi, there is a different adventure available. Gulfport allows visitors a variety of interactions with the cute Bottlenose Dolphin. The Institute of Marine Mammal Studies, ‘IMMS’, offers year-round meet-and-greets with their dolphins. This is a shorter program, but allows guests to stand on the dock of the pool and feed, touch and obtain a posed behavior with one of the Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins.
The Dolphin Interaction Program allows guests to enter the dolphin pool and get up close and personal with the playful mammals. While in the water, guests can interact with, feed and touch the dolphins. This program runs about an hour long, and guests must be eight years of age or older, and must be 48 inches tall.
For those seeking something a bit bigger, this next place might be the perfect adventure. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta allows participants to swim with sharks. Not the Great Whites, of course, but the Whale Sharks. The Whale Shark is the largest fish in the world, so this opportunity is just as ‘great’.
Guests enter the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit, and swim along the surface with a flotation device and snorkel. The swim lasts about 30 minutes, with total participation time running for about two hours. A behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium is also included.
If it’s more interaction with the whale sharks you prefer, you might want to choose the diving program. Dive with whale sharks and get as close as your comfort level will allow. Georgia Aquarium is the only destination worldwide that guarantees the option of diving with the largest fish on earth. Children must be at least 12 years of age to participate in either event.