Warm sun and stretches of golden sand are an undeniable draw of the Caribbean, but getting a chance to play with the wild locals was a highlight of my recent western Caribbean cruise. No, I’m not talking about dancing to live reggae music or drinking rum with wannabe pirates. I mean getting face-to-face with native Caribbean wildlife — turtles, manatees, flamingos and more!
Caribbean wildlife encounters are a fun and memorable way to learn about your destination. You’ll find out about the animals’ environment, what they eat and what unique challenges they face.
Hug a manatee in Cozumel
At the risk of over-reacting, I do believe of all my lifetime wildlife encounters, swimming with manatees was one of the most astounding! The 700-pound sea cows are so ugly they are adorable and so friendly they just steal your heart. First, a marine mammal expert taught us about these gentle giants, and we posed for individual photos (kiss, hug, etc.). Then we were able to feed and free swim with them in their natural habitat. Dolphin and sea lion encounters are available, but swimming with four enormous manatees was a trip highlight for me.
TIP: Chankanaab is a clean and well-groomed park with a long sandy beach, palapas, loungers and hammocks, snorkeling gear for rent, beachside restaurants, a massage hut and zip lines. It’s a great place to spend the day.
Beach horseback riding in Jamaica
Whether you’re a novice or skilled rider, riding horseback on the beach is an exhilarating experience. In Jamaica, multiple tour operators offer two- to three-hour guided rides through the lush countryside and farmland, ending with a trot along a beautiful Jamaican beach. For the ultimate in adventure, ride right into the surf on horses specially trained to swim.
TIP: Age and weight restrictions normally apply.
Swim with turtles and stingrays in Grand Cayman
The Cayman Turtle Center is an award winning educational and breeding facility that includes touch tanks and a large saltwater lagoon where you can actually swim with baby sea turtles. The park also includes a free-flight aviary with many colorful bird species, a nature trail, shark and crocodile feeding shows.
TIP: To get there, catch the local bus (van), which is like a taxi.
Stingray City is another place to mingle with marine life and find yourself surrounded by the graceful wings of friendly stingrays. They are quite passive, so you can feed them and even hold them. There are actually two different places you can interact with stingrays — both require a boat tour. Divers and snorkelers like the Valley of the Rays (12- to 15-foot depth near the barrier reef). At Stingray City sandbar you stand on sandbars (3- to 5-foot depth).
TIP: Stingray City sandbar can be very busy when multiple cruise ships are in port.
Join the flock in the Bahamas
Our last port of call was Nassau, Bahamas and we headed straight for Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Centre to see flamingos, Bahamas’ national bird. We missed the show of world-famous marching flamingos but were able to walk among free-range flamingos and the most spectacular white peacock. Many interesting botanicals wear identification labels, and the incorporation of the bird, mammal and reptile exhibits into the gardens and pathways give it a very natural look.
TIP: Hand-feed the playful Lory parrots.
To plan your own Caribbean wildlife encounter, get in touch with your favorite vacation advisor.