On Location: Close Encounters on the Riviera Maya
Along this beach-filled Mexican coastline, several operations offer visitors a chance to swim with dolphins and manatees
Snorkelers commune with a manatee at the Xel-H? marine park; Evan and Barbara, hands outstretched, get a feel for a dolphin at Dolphin Discovery.
While on assignment with his mom, Endless Vacation? magazine?s editor in chief, Barbara Peck, our young writer played with some of Mexico?s most lovable creatures

Before my last trip to the Riviera Maya, the nearest I?d ever come to large marine life was snorkeling with sea turtles in Akumal Bay. On this trip, however, I had a chance to swim with dolphins, stingrays, a nurse shark and my favorite animals: manatees.

At Dolphin Discovery in Puerto Aventuras (about an hour south of Canc?n), my mother and I took part in the Royal Swim program. We had a wonderful time playing and interacting with the dolphins, but the most exciting part was the foot push. Wearing a life jacket, you float immobile in the water, legs straight out behind you, and wait for two dolphins to start pushing on the soles of your feet. If you keep your knees locked, you?ll be lifted right out of the water. (Bend your legs and the dolphins will immediately give up on you.) It was incredible to feel these powerful creatures putting all their energy into pushing me around. Maybe what draws us to dolphins is not so much that they can be trained to interact with us, but that they seem to get so much joy out of playing in the water?perhaps even more than we do.

After the dolphin encounter, the operators gave us the option of going to the next lagoon to snorkel above Caribbean stingrays (stingers removed) and a lethargic nurse shark. (The shark was a young one, approximately five feet long, and nurse sharks eat by sucking in small fish and crustaceans; that is, they are not known to bite people.) We also got the chance to pet and kiss the shark on its pebbly skin.

Dolphin Discovery should please even the most demanding animal-rights supporters. The animals live in large habitats in a sparkling natural bay, where fresh cenote water is always circulating, keeping the bay clean. The dolphins are fed high-grade fish that?s imported from Canada and the United States to ensure consistent quality and quantity. And according to manager Mauricio Cortez Aguilar, 95 percent of the facility?s 19 dolphins were born here ?under human care? (his way to avoid saying ?in captivity?); that reproduction is a sign that the animals are happy and well cared for. The facility also has four manatees, two of which were rescued from a polluted pond near Tabasco.

My mother and I also got a chance to swim with and feed three manatees at Xel-H? (pronounced shell-ha), a beautiful 200-acre marine park north of Tulum. Visitors come here to swim, snorkel, bike and experience the natural wonders of the Riviera Maya. Two of Xel-H??s manatees were also rescues, having come from the same pond as the ones at Dolphin Discovery, and the third was a baby, born ?under human care.?

If you?ve ever seen the video of Kristen Bell having a meltdown before meeting her first sloth (Google it!), you have a good bar for measuring how I felt before meeting my first manatee. We spent almost an hour petting, hugging and feeding these beautiful creatures while being taught all about their anatomy and why they?re endangered. My mother described the water in the enclosure as ?skuzzy,? and the reason for its condition soon became clear: Manatees are messy eaters. (As a salad lover, my mom also coveted the gorgeous crisp lettuce we were feeding into their bristly mouths.) Despite the manatees? huge size?the largest weighed 1,500 pounds?they never seemed threatening or powerful, only lovable. We stood on a platform to feed them, and they often used a fin to gently grasp our waists or legs so they wouldn?t float away. After the feeding we were invited to snorkel around the manatees as they moved slowly about their enclosure.

I acknowledge that these are expensive programs, but I highly recommend both to those who are willing. If you book online at Dolphin Discovery, you can get a discount on the price. Xel-H?’s Manatee Encounter is very limited, and advance registration is a must. If the prices are too steep for you, remember there are always the sea turtles in Akumal Bay, where you can snorkel free right off the beach. Just remember to stay a respectful distance from the turtles.

Royal Swim: adults $139*, children $79

Adults, general admission $79, including meals; manatee encounter $79. The park also has a dolphin encounter; the hour-long Primax session costs $149.

*Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip