8 Places to See Marine Animals From Dry Land

African penguins on a rock at Boulders Beach, Simon's Town, South Africa
Endangered African penguins gather in the sun on Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa.

Franz Marc Frei / Getty Images

Some of the most beautiful creatures on Earth live on or under the surface of the ocean. The problem for us humans is that it’s nearly impossible to see the most interesting marine animals up close. There are some places, however, where casual wildlife-watchers can see marine animals without even getting wet, where sea creatures venture out of their watery world or get very close to ours. 

Here are eight places where you can see amazing marine animals from dry land.

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Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands

Two South American sea lions sitting on a rock in the water in the Falklands Islands

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Sea Lion Island, the southernmost inhabited island in the Falklands, is rich with marine animals that drop in on the sandy bays, sandstone cliffs, and extensive shorelines. A few that spend the majority of their time in the ocean, including elephant seals and sea lions, choose to come ashore on Sea Lion Island.

Smaller landmasses near the main island also have haul-out sites where seals come out of the water en masse. There have also been sightings of three species of penguins on the main island, and from October through February, killer whales are often sighted on the surface of the water just offshore.

An eco-friendly destination, the lodge at Sea Lion Island boasts wind and solar power, and the island's status as a national nature reserve means it has strict rules that protect the local animal population.

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Crystal River, Florida

Manatee in the shallow waters of Crystal River adjacent to mangrove

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Slow-moving manatees, nicknamed "sea cows," are not the most elusive marine mammals. They float in shallow waters and are pretty easy to spot if you know where to go and when to look. These gentle giants are aggressively protected due to their endangered status and their inability to defend themselves.

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, near its namesake town about an hour-and-a-half north of Tampa, is a major destination for manatees migrating during the wintertime. Several park programs allow people to snorkel alongside the manatees, but you can also see them from viewing points along the roads and on the bridges inside the refuge. Since they float near the surface of the water, manatees are very easy to see from land without the aid of binoculars.

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Kangaroo Island, Australia

Pair of sea lions at the ocean's edge on Kangaroo Island, an island off the mainland in South Australia

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Australia's third-largest island, Kangaroo Island sits off the southern coastline about 70 miles from Adelaide. Sparsely inhabited and with well-protected animal populations, the island is sometimes called Australia's version of the Galápagos Islands. Australian sea lions and fur seals can be seen on the island's beaches, and there is also a colony of little penguins. These small, flightless birds are elusive since they come ashore only at night and hide along the rocky sections of the coast until it is time to return to the water.

Sea lion colonies can be visited at Seal Bay Conservation Park, though visitors are permitted to walk on the beach only as part of a guided tour. New Zealand fur seals congregate at several points, mostly near the picturesque rock formation known as Admirals Arch, inside the island's Flinders Chase National Park.

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Georgia Barrier Islands

sea turtle hatchling walking on the beach toward the ocean at Blackbeard Island Georgia

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Division / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The barrier islands off the mainland coast of the U.S. state of Georgia are teeming with marine wildlife. Five species of sea turtles are found off the coast of Georgia but only loggerhead turtles nest on the barrier islands regularly. Jekyll Island is home to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which specializes in rehabilitating injured or ill loggerheads. The center also offers turtle walks during the nesting season in June and July.

Manatees are also spotted in the shallow brackish waters along the barrier islands and the mainland coast. Cumberland Island National Seashore, an island accessible only by boat, has 18 miles of beaches that draw turtles during the summer nesting season. Shorebirds and wading birds, like egrets and herons, are a common sight along the beaches as well.

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St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

Leatherback sea turtle on the beach in the US Virgin Islands

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a haven for sea turtles. The island of St. Croix is home to nesting areas for three species of these amazing shelled creatures. Hawksbills, leatherbacks, and green turtles all lay their eggs on the sandy shores at different times of the year. Leatherbacks, which can weigh up to 800 pounds, nest every two to three years. The smaller, endangered green turtles and critically endangered hawksbill turtles nest later in the year. Between March and November, at least one of these species of turtle nests on St. Croix.

Both the Buck Island Reef National Monument and Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge are protected areas where all the turtle species nest. Strict regulations about everything from lights on beaches and noise levels to digging holes on the beach make certain that the turtles' needs are balanced with those of human visitors.

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Cape Town, South Africa

African penguins in the water at Boulders Beach, South Africa

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The southern city of Cape Town, South Africa, is a hub for people who want to explore the rugged coastline that characterizes this part of the continent. South of Cape Town on False Bay, Boulders Beach is home to a large colony of endangered African penguins. Started in 1982 with two breeding pairs, the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach has about 2,200 penguins.

Closer to Cape Town, boats leaving Hout Bay travel to nearby Duiker Island. The small offshore island is off limits to humans, but it is home to a large seal population. In addition to seals, visitors can observe dozens of seabirds, whales, and dolphins from boats that travel to the island.

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Point Reyes, California

Northern elephant seal on the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, California

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The Point Reyes National Seashore, located 30 miles northwest of San Francisco, is a beautiful stretch of coastline that is easy to access. It not only receives a high number of human visitors, but it is also a hot spot for northern elephant seals. Once hunted to near-extinction, the seals began making a comeback in the area in the 1970s. A colony now thrives along the seashore. In fact, the seals are doing so well that they have spread out to neighboring beaches and often come face to face with sunbathers, hikers, and picnickers.

During the mating and pupping seasons, when the elephant seals congregate on the beaches at Point Reyes, the National Park Service allows people to observe the aquatic mammals from a sea-cliff vantage point called Chimney Rock. From this altitude, it is also possible to see migrating gray whales just offshore.

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Maui, Hawaii

Humpback whale breeching in the waters off of Maui with island of Lanai in background

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No matter where you go in Hawaii, the ocean is nearby. Though the world's largest marine mammals don't actually come ashore, you can get a very clear view of them from the shoreline. It is estimated that some 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales arrive in the waters surrounding Hawaii during the winter breeding season. Many congregate in the ‘Au‘au Channel between Maui, Moloka‘i, and Lānaʻi. 

With or without binoculars, people on shore can see these mammoth creatures surfacing to breathe, flashing their tail fin as they prepare to dive, and breaching (jumping partially out of the water). Regulations prohibit approaching humpback whales closer than 100 yards in Hawaiian waters—on or in the water.  If you keep your distance, you can sometimes put your head under the surface (with the aid of a snorkel) and listen to the songlike calls of the whales.