Animals in the Caribbean
Animal lovers seeking a creature-oriented vacation can’t go wrong in the Caribbean. From rare birds and colorful reef fish to majestic whales and jumbo sharks, animals are aplenty from Puerto Rico to the Cayman Islands. So pack up the fish identification cards, bird binoculars and sharky snacks, it’s time to go on a critter quest.
Reptiles, Fish and Birds on Mona Island, Puerto Rico
Forty-two miles west of Puerto Rico lies Mona Island, a 13,000-acre protected reserve where as many as 100 endangered species and 270 types of fish make their home. Known as the “Caribbean Galapagos,” the island features hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles, red-footed boobies and the indigenous Mona iguana. The island is uninhabited, but camping is permitted and many outfitters offer multi-day camping and snorkeling trips. Leatherback turtle nesting season lasts from April to October, when a massive migration of hatching babies make the break from nest to the sea.
Caribbean Reef Sharks in the Bahamas
If your bucket list includes the sight of a shark’s mouth close to your face, your dream is as close as Nassau, Bahamas. Stuart Cove's, a full-service dive resort, offers a 2-tank scuba dive at sites where Caribbean reef sharks congregate. The first plunge takes certified divers along a steep underwater reef wall. Sharks swim alongside the group as they head to a feeding site. On the second plunge, divers kneel on the sandy bottom in a semi-circle around a bait box. Guides then control the release of food using long poles. Watching the 5- to 8-foot sharks devour their feed is not dangerous; Caribbean reef sharks do not associate humans with food.
Humpback Whales in the Silver Banks
Between January and March, humpback whales mate and calve in the Silver Bank, a region in the Atlantic between Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic. Snorkelers can slip into the water and swim with the majestic 10- to 12-foot calves as their mothers watch from below. Participants get close to the whales on inflatable rafts and guides give instruction on how to approach the curious calves using slow, gentle movements. The Aggressor Fleet offers week-long expeditions departing from Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic on the 120-foot Turks and Caicos Aggressor II, which sleeps up to 18 guests.
Birds and Bats in Trinidad
Trinidad’s mountainous terrain is full of animals, especially those that fly. The Asa Wright Lodge near the city of Arima is considered one of the premiere birding locations in the world and is home to more than 170 species of birds, including toucans, manikins, tanagers and the rare oilbird.
Travelers interested in bats should head to Mount Tamana, the highest point in the island’s Central Range. Guides lead hikers up a steep, 30-minute climb to an intricate cave system, where more than 500,000 bats roost during the day. At sunset, the group returns to the entrance of the caves to watch as a constant stream of bats flies within inches of peoples’ faces.
Stingrays in Cayman Islands
These graceful, prehistoric fish usually stay hidden, burrowing into sandy ocean floors, waiting for prey. But in the Grand Cayman’s North Sound at the aptly named Stingray City, local southern stingrays glide through the water, suck squid from your fingers and gently brush your face with their wings. (Don’t worry, they don’t sting, unless you pull their tail.). Scuba divers kneel at 10 to 12 feet on the sandy ocean floor while snorkelers hover on the surface of the water or swim in a shallower location for a look.
Whale Sharks in Utila
The smallest of The Bay Islands of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea, Utila is one of the best places to swim with the elusive whale shark, the world’s largest fish. The best time to find the pelagic creatures, which average 30 feet in length, is March to April and August to September, although a few of the solitary animals can be found off the north shore most months of the year.
Travel writer Trisha Creekmore has been to more than a dozen Caribbean islands. Scuba diving at Stingray City has been one of her adventure highlights.