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Oceanfront Wildlife Encounters

A trip to the coast is fun for obvious reasons, such as the long days spent sunning yourself on the beach and the thrill of playing in the surf. But there’s also plenty to see for those with a love of nature and a keen sense of adventure. 

In between your days of rest and relaxation at the beach, your travelers can awaken their inner explorer by visiting these coastal attractions, which give visitors an up-close look at the local wildlife. These destinations aren’t aquariums or zoos; they allow you to witness the majesty of these wild animals without disturbing their natural habitat.

Learn about and connect with a surprising variety of animals and the land — and sea — they inhabit by checking out the following attractions.

San Diego Whale Watch

San Diego

When it comes to viewing wildlife, it doesn’t get any grander than a trip to see the largest animal in the world. With a whale-watching cruise, visitors have the thrilling opportunity to feel the ocean spray on their face and see these awe-inspiring animals from close range. There are many whale-watching boat tours, but San Diego Whale Watch was the first company to begin offering this experience year-round in the San Diego area. The waters off the coast are teeming with marine life, making it likely you will see some form of whale on your voyage. Blue whales, the world’s largest mammals, can be encountered during the summer months; gray whales are more commonly seen during their migration in the winter months. Other species of whale, such as fin, minke and humpback, can be seen more rarely. It’s also common to see large pods of dolphins alongside the boat, as well as sea lions and many varieties of birds. 

Groups have their choice of indoor or outdoor seating on the historic company boat, which was the first boat to be used exclusively for whale watching in the area. San Diego Whale Watch is passionate about educating guests of all ages about the wonders of the ocean and the many creatures that inhabit it. Each three-hour tour is narrated by certified marine biologists that are experts at spotting the variety of wildlife and provide engaging facts about the animals to go with the breathtaking views of the Pacific.

Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

Surf City, North Carolina

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center opened in 1997. The center, named for the late founder of the Topsail Turtle Project, aims to continue her legacy of caring for and protecting sea turtles. This legacy is being fulfilled; the center is now a 13,000-square-foot hospital and rehab center for sea turtles where they can recover from injuries and illnesses. It cares for 100 to 150 sea turtles each year. When the turtles are rehabilitated, they’re released back into their natural habitats, and sometimes the releases are even open to the public. 

“You get to see animals that are wild animals but need a little extra intervention from people to help them get back into the wild,” said Kathy Zagzebski, the center’s executive director. 

 Visitors are organized into small groups for guided tours of the facility. Groups can first stop for photo ops with the center’s ocean-themed mural. Then they can view the educational exhibits that are designed to teach visitors all about sea turtles and the center’s mission. 

However, the favorite part of the tour for many guests is the end, when they get to take a closer look at some of the hospital’s patients in various stages of healing, including the center’s resident turtle, Lennie. The center also educates about efforts to protect sea turtle nests and help the hatchlings get to the ocean. It’s all part of its mission to save the species and advocate for conservation. 

“It also gives you a sense of some of the bigger issues and dangers that these sea turtles are facing,” said Zagzebski. 

Whether you’re passionate about wildlife conservation and animal rescue or you just want to see these incredible animals up close, a trip to this sea turtle hospital is sure to inspire awe and delight.

Assateague Explorer Nature Cruises and Kayaking

Chincoteague, Virginia

When you think of coastal wildlife, you likely think of animals with fins, flippers and gills. But on Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland, herds of wild ponies graze on the marsh grasses and play in the sun. Legend has it that these ponies were introduced to the island after a Spanish shipwreck in the 16th century and have populated the island ever since; other theories hold that they were introduced and abandoned by mainland farmers in the 17th century. Assateague Explorer offers visitors a chance to see them.

“There’s nowhere else where you can really go to see these wild horses,” said Mark Coulbourne, the founder of Assateague Explorer.  

As a native of neighboring island Chincoteague and a former park ranger on Assateague Island, Coulbourne, also known as Captain Mark, is familiar with the wildlife and the area. Over 20 years ago, he recognized the need for a service that allowed visitors of the island to appreciate its natural beauty and unique wildlife, so he founded Assateague Explorer and remains its primary tour guide. His experience living in the area and guiding tours each day makes him an expert on the area and seeking out the wildlife for groups to see.  

The island itself is a national park and features picturesque beaches and the Assateague lighthouse. In addition to the wild ponies, visitors can also expect to catch glimpses of other wildlife, such as dolphins, bald eagles and sting rays, on the nature cruise. After the nature cruise around the island, groups can also take a kayak tour, where they can get even closer to the animals. Views of the island and the animals are particularly spectacular on the sunset tours.

Fury Water Adventures Key West Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Tour

Key West, Florida

In case you needed another reason to go to Key West, how about the opportunity to see bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat? Fury Water Adventures Key West makes it possible to view the dolphins and the beautiful ecosystem they inhabit in a responsible way. 

These curious and intelligent animals can be found swimming in pods in the turquoise waters surrounding the island. The Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Tour is a three-hour tour that takes visitors into the heart of dolphin territory and then allows them to snorkel in the shallow backcountry, where fish, sting rays and isolated coral formations can be found in the clear waters. The tour is an obvious choice for those that not only like wildlife but also are conscious of protecting it. 

“We want to do everything the right way as far as making sure that we’re not harming the environment but educating people as well,” said Kyra Gorman, marketing coordinator for the agency. 

Fury Water Adventures Key West offers the only Dolphin Smart certified tours in the region. This means they meet the standards for responsible dolphin-watching based on a national program created by conservation groups and marine sanctuaries. Reef-safe sunscreen is provided to guests to minimize the presence of harmful chemicals in the water.

In addition to sunscreen, snorkeling equipment and instruction are provided so guests can enjoy their own underwater adventures in the protected waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On the way back from snorkeling and viewing the dolphins, guests can enjoy a chilled beverage with their tour. 

The view of the turquoise waters surrounding the island is almost unbeatable, but sunsets at Key West may rival it. From spring to fall, visitors can sip complimentary champagne on the agency’s sunset tour and enjoy all the natural beauty Key West has to offer.

Sea Lion Caves

Florence, Oregon

Sea Lion Caves is a privately owned wildlife preserve on the Oregon coast that was first discovered in 1880. It’s the largest sea cave in the U.S., approximately the size of a football field. As the name suggests, it’s also one of the best places to see Steller sea lions and their cubs. 

Though you can find the sea lions here year-round, you’re most likely to see them in the fall and winter months, when hundreds of the animals seek refuge in the caves. In the spring, it’s possible to glimpse them on the rock ledges near the cave, where they spend the breeding season. These carnivorous animals are impressive to behold, with adult males weighing up to 2,500 pounds and measuring 11 feet long.

“The animals here are wild animals,” said Jim McMillan, general manager of the attraction. “We’re the ones behind the fence.”

Visitors can take a self-guided tour through the premises, enjoying views of the coast, where they may be able to spot a whale or two. Several species of birds frequent the area, making their home on the same rookery where the sea lions breed. Visitors can explore the cave, where an elevator, added in 1961, lowers visitors more than 200 feet into the massive cave for a better view of the sea lions. After a look around the cave, visitors can check out the gift shop for trinkets to commemorate the time spent visiting the sea lions.