Top Five Most Playful Marine Animal Encounters
For most scuba divers, seeing marine animals is the largest lure of the sport, from the smallest nudibranchs and seahorses to the largest sharks and rays. But while most animals simply pass by or hover at a distance, some are interested in interacting with divers, even being playful.
First - A Note
Before we continue, just a reminder to practice sustainable interactions. Do not chase animals; let them approach you. Do not hold or grab animals, and do not corner them so they cannot leave when they want. And let the animals call the shots — let them instigate the interaction and let them end it when they want. With that in mind, here are five of the most playful underwater encounters you’ll ever have.
These are definitely my personal favorites. Often called “the dogs of the ocean,” they are naturally curious and very intelligent, and often seek out divers to instigate contact. They can be extraordinarily playful, especially the pups, and have been known to bite on fins, regulators and hoses, so it’s worth keeping on eye on them. They will occasionally accompany divers on entire dives, seemingly just for the heck of it. Residents of cooler waters, they are often overlooked when it comes to divers’ tales of animal encounters, but they are always a pleasure to meet.
Yes, sharks can be playful, and lemons are among the most playful of them. Known by some divers as the “Disney shark,” they are known for their distinctive facial features, which make them look as if they are smiling. They are also highly curious, so much so that they can be quite difficult to photograph. They often come all the way up to the diver, butting their snout against the lens, particularly around the Bahamas. While some of this behavior may be due to past feeding, the species does have a natural curious streak.
Dolphins are the favorite of many a diver. These agile creatures are naturally playful and inquisitive, and often seek out swimmers and snorkelers, and sometimes scuba divers as well, though they seem put off somewhat by our noisy bubbles. Depending on the species, dolphins may appear individually or in groups, and will swim around divers, even coming up to nudge them underwater or at the surface. While “dolphin surfing,” wherein you grab hold of the animal’s dorsal fin and let it tow you through the water, has been practiced in the past, it is unacceptable behavior today.
We know — penguins may not be the most common underwater encounter for divers. After all, Antarctica isn’t really a diving hotspot (pun intended). However, penguins are found in more temperate areas, such as South Africa and some parts of Australia. Divers here sometimes see the penguins swimming along with them, observing them, and zooming around like small, feathered torpedoes. At Shelly Beach, in Sydney, one zoomed down and stopped a few inches from my face, hovered and looked at me for a minute. It sped off, only to repeat the whole encounter a few more times.
Otters are always a treat for freshwater divers. While they rarely dive to significant depths, they are excellent swimmers and can be found in lakes and rivers in temperate climates. Extremely curious, they sometimes follow along for entire dives, observing divers from the surface. They’ve also been known to play with the exhaust bubbles as they reach the surface and break. On one dive I did in Sweden, an otter threw pebbles at us during our surface interval.