Dreaming of Travel: The World’s Best Underwater Adventures

April 27, 2020 Updated: May 7, 2020

Unless you live somewhere along the coast, getting underwater, splashing around, and spotting colorful wildlife and other natural wonders remains, for most, just a fond memory—or a future dream.

While we’re all stuck at home daydreaming about beaches and snorkeling and diving, about massive schools of flashing fish cutting their way through the aquamarine above piles of bubbling coral, and about sunnier days in general, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best ways and places in the world to get wet.

Subarctic Swims With Beluga Whales (Churchill, Manitoba)

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Beluga whales. (Courtesy of Travel Manitoba)

You’ll hear them before you see them. Set on the frigid shores of Hudson Bay, Churchill is best-known for another arctic animal—the tiny town of 899 has proclaimed itself the Polar Bear Capital of the World. And indeed, during autumn months, these massive white predators often wander down main street or show up in people’s backyards. 

But here, at the mouth of the Churchill River, you’ll also find one of the few places on earth where you can snorkel with beluga whales. These cute creatures are nonetheless massive—the size of a compact car—and some 50,000 gather in this spot in late summer. You’ll slide into a heavy-duty wetsuit, complete with hood, booties, and mitts, and ride out to the spot where the river empties into Hudson Bay, then drop into the murky waters.

First, you’ll hear their alien chirping and singing. Then, if you’re lucky, the belugas will approach you, sometimes swimming within arm’s length, close enough to make eye contact before they angle away, back into the inscrutable green.

Snorkel With the Salmon (Campbell River, BC)

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Snorkeling with salmon. (Eiko Jones Photography)

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for the fish—and maybe, for you, too. Every summer and fall, about half a million salmon, which come in a number of varieties—sockeyes, cohos, kings, and pinks—swim from the Pacific and up the Campbell River on Vancouver Island, here for their ultimate task, to lay 300,000 eggs and then die. 

It’s an unforgettable experience. A local outfitter drops you off upriver and you float with the flow, soon surrounded by these prehistoric beasts, which can weigh up to 100 pounds and grow to a length of four feet. They’ll swirl around you, enveloping you in an alien world, as you ride the tide all the way out to the edge of the ocean.

Whale Sharks and Wonder (Exmouth, Australia)

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Swimming with whale sharks. (Courtesy of Tourism Australia)

Sitting just off a remote northwest corner of Australia, the Ningaloo is the world’s largest shore-fringing reef, a string of coral running some 160 miles. But first, go beyond it, to find the whale sharks. Motor out on a boat onto the Indian Ocean to spot these massive, slow-moving monoliths that can grow to more than 60 feet in length and typically weigh about 20,000 pounds—the largest fish on earth. They’re spotted from aircraft high above, which will signal the boat, and you’ll drop from the stern into the waves, tracking these gentle giants for as long as a mile, as they pace their ponderous way through the blue.

And then relax. The area is home to an African-style tented camp right on the sand, called Sal Salis (a local aboriginal phrase for “salty”), where you can grab a snorkel mask and fins and walk out to the water, just steps from your bed, and drift for as long as you like over the colorful coral and rainbow of fish, until you’re ready to head back to your tent and put your feet up in a hammock.

Surround Yourself With Sharks (Beqa Lagoon, Fiji)

bull sharks
Bull sharks, Beqa Lagoon. (Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock)

If spotting a single shark on a dive or snorkel is a thrilling experience—then seeing several species is utterly breathtaking. Dropping deep into the aquamarine in the Beqa Lagoon, just off Fiji’s main island (Viti Levu), you’ll descend to a depth of more than 60 feet, then wait for some of the world’s most fearsome creatures. As many as five shark species congregate here, including tiger sharks and bull sharks, two of the deadliest, plus nurse, lemon, and silver-tips. 

Fijians have been swimming with sharks for centuries. Experienced local guides will position you between themselves and these beasts, and you’ll hang behind a rock wall, holding your breath, maybe, for just a moment, and marvel at their brute strength as they slide stealthily, harmlessly by you. 

Splash Around With Pigs (Exumas, Bahamas)

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Swimming pigs in the Exumas, Bahamas. (Forest Simon/Unsplash)

Marooned on an otherwise uninhabited island in the Bahamian Exumas, nobody’s quite sure how this group of a couple dozen pigs and piglets got to Big Major Cay—some say that they’re the descendants of swine cast ashore from a long-ago shipwreck. But one thing’s certain—these adorable animals love the water, and they welcome company. 

Made famous by social media posts and viral videos, you can pack sunblock and swimsuit and sail out with a local outfitter for a day trip to visit these celebrity porkers. Spend your time soaking up the sun and splashing and swimming with them in the unbelievably blue water. Then leave a snack—they survive on gifts from visitors and passing boats as well as the water from natural springs on the island. 

Snorkel With Massive Manta Rays (Kona, Hawaii)

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Manta ray. (Courtesy of Big Island Divers)

You find them at night. Sailing out from the paradise Island of Hawaii (the Big Island), you’ll watch the sunset over the sea, then slip into the Pacific at twilight. Gathering with your fellow snorkelers around a lighted raft, put your masked face in the water—and you won’t quite believe your eyes. 

Tiny plankton are attracted by the light, and, in turn, massive manta rays, their mouths gaping and wide open, are drawn in by their main food source. With a wingspan that can exceed 20 feet, they swoop and somersault as they feed, strange sea beasts performing an aquatic ballet just beneath your toes. You may fear getting hoovered up in that big mouth, but it’s all perfectly safe—soon you’ll be back on shore, sipping a mai-tai and marveling at the memory. 

Sleep on a Reef (Whitsundays, Australia)

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Pontoon on Hardy Reef. (Courtesy Tourism and Events Queensland)

It’s rare and special when you get the opportunity to sleep on top of one of the world’s greatest wonders. Famously visible from outer space, the Great Barrier Reef stretches more than 1,400 miles and encompasses an area of 133,000 square miles. This indescribably huge—and beautiful—living mass is swimming with life. 

And on a string of islands called the Whitsundays—a series of emerald pearls among the aquamarine—you can spend the night there. Boating out to a pontoon permanently moored 39 nautical miles from shore on Hardy Reef, you’ll join a small, lucky group who will wave goodbye to the day-trippers and spend the night. Snorkel along the coral at your leisure, enjoy a hearty meal on the top deck, then settle in for a night under the stars in a “swag,” a classic Australian tent.   

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.