Some of the most memorable family holidays involve venturing into the deep blue to swim with, snorkel with or just get close to some of the most astonishing animals on the planet.
During the summer months, the waters around St John’s on Newfoundland in Canada teem with minke, fin and humpback whales. Go independently June to August and arrange a seafari while you are there, or do it as a package trip; you might even get the chance to try your hand at measuring giant squid, study puffins and go jumping with salmon.
The Bahamas islands of Bimini have been famous since Ernest Hemingway lived here as a superb place to fish, snorkel and scuba-dive, but more recently as a place to visit dolphins. The islands are close to Miami, so getting there is cheaper than it is to many Caribbean islands.
A little closer to home but also a great place to see dolphins is the Moray Firth in Scotland, where large pods of bottlenose dolphins gambol. Visit independently and take a ferry, or book a tour.
Forget SeaWorld and ‘Free Willy’ – seeing orcas in the wild is magnificent. Orcas come to the remote Lofoten Islands in Norwegian Lapland in winter, looking for sardines. Visitors can stay in an ice hotel for the perfect winter wildlife trip.
Unlike in many areas closer to Asia, whale sharks in the Seychelles have never been hunted, making this one of the best places in the world to get close to one of these extraordinary giants as well as being one of the best places for a family beach holiday. Rent a family villa on Denis Island and snorkelling trips will come as part of the deal. While you’re on the lookout for whale sharks, don’t forget the turtles, rays, sharks and sailfish that inhabit these waters.
Snorkelling is a very good activity for most children 6+ as long as they have the necessary swimming skills, and taking them to find their own Nemo makes for a very special holiday. The Yasawa Islands of Fiji are especially good for seeing tropical fish – the location for the film ‘Blue Lagoon’, they haven’t changed much since Brooke Shields was having the time of her life here.
Or try the nature reserve of Chumbe Island off the coast of Zanzibar – trips to this protected island with its untouched coral reef are carefully monitored, with all profits from tourism ploughed back into local concerns. You also get the chance to see other unique and extraordinary wildlife.
Seals and Sealions
Seals and sealions tend to come en masse and seeing beaches full of them is pretty inspiring for any child, let alone seeing them in the water. Peninsular Valdes in Patagonia, Argentina – a UNESCO listed World Heritage site and marine sanctuary – is one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with vast breeding grounds of southern elephant seals, southern sealions and penguins. You may recognize it from many a David Attenborough program. The best time to visit is September or October, when breeding starts.
Any child who enjoys the CBBC program ‘Deadly 60’ will have learnt just how beautiful and extraordinary sharks are and many will also have become consumed by a desire to see them in the wild. Although we don’t recommend getting into a diving cage to meet a great white, there are many ways that children can encounter sharks in their natural habitat – most notably Kids Sea Camps, when children as young as 4 are introduced to snorkelling and scuba-diving in Palau, a beautiful Pacific Island, or Curaçao in the Caribbean. The southern coast of South Africa is also an excellent place to see sharks, though most trips there are for children 10+.
The spectacle of turtles laying or the eggs hatching is remarkable, and the protected national park of Tortuguero in Costa Rica is an excellent place to see this. Costa Rican beaches are home to rare leatherback, hawksbill, olive ridley and green turtles, all of whom come to shore at different times of year. The Adventure Company has a 2wk trip to Costa Rica for children 8+, with accommodation on the turtle reserve and the chance to help the ranger on turtle patrol. You also get the chance to travel along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastline, go whitewater rafting and visit the volcano.
Oman is a great place to visit in general, and the beaches of Ras Al Jinz are a favourite nesting place for green turtles. Or visit Hawaii and stay at the controversial Turtle Resort, where the beach from the series ‘Lost’ stretches in front of you, along with large numbers of turtles and a few surfing dudes.
The dugong or manatee is a gentle, cow-like sea-giant that was once the inspiration for sailor’s tales of mermaids (it is a little hard to see why) and until fairly recently was thought to be extinct. The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida was formed for the protection of the manatee, who live there in dense numbers. Visitors are allowed to swim or dive with them, although restrictions apply. There are large numbers of boat and kayak companies vying for your custom, so it is a good trip to do independently.
You don’t actually need to go quite so far to see fascinating sea creatures – the British coastline is brimming with weird and wonderful critters, and all you need to find them is a bucket, a net and probably a raincoat. Goodrington Sands in Devon takes rockpooling very seriously – a countryside ranger is on hand during school holidays to lead rockpooling rambles and there is a Seashore Centre. Look out for strange, drifting pipefish, or sea-hares gambolling in the shallows. Equip your kids with a checklist and warn them about the thugs of the rockpool, the claw-clashing shore crab.
Other rockpool hotspots include Caswell Bay on the Gower Peninsula of Wales, where you might surprise an octopus or a purple-ink squirting seaslug, and Broad Ledge in Lyme Regis, Dorset – when you get bored of fossilling, you’ll find some of the best-named sea creatures on the planet here, including dragon nets, lugworms and breadcrumb sponges. Or go foraging for edibles in Treyarnon Bay in Padstow, Cornwall and stare at the diners paying over the odds at Rick Stein’s restaurant as you eat your own crab and winkle sandwich.