8 Places to See Exotic Marine Animals on Dry Land

Seal laying on the sand
Photo: emka74/Shutterstock

Some of the most exotic 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. Sure, there is scuba, but in reality, that’s a commitment of training, time and money that makes this an impractical option for most.

There are some places, however, where casual wildlife watchers can see marine animals without even getting wet, where sea creatures step out of their watery world and into ours (and they are a lot more accessible than the Galapagos Islands). Here are eight places where you can encounter amazing marine creatures on land.

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Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands

Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Sea Lion Island, the southernmost inhabited island in the Falklands, is rich with wildlife that drop in on the sandy bays, sandstone cliffs and loads of shoreline. Many animals that spend the majority of their time in the sea, including elephant seals and sea lions, choose to come ashore on Sea Lion Island. Smaller land masses 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 during the November breeding season, killer whales are often sighted on the surface of the water just offshore.

Sea Lion Island is one of the most eco-friendly destinations on our list. The Sea Lion Lodge boasts wind and solar power, and the island's status as a national nature reserve means that it has strict rules that protect the local animal population (including laws that are meant to keep the island free of rodents and domestic pets).

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Crystal River, Florida Gulf Coast

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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. However, they 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

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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 Galapagos. 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 very 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.

Over half of the island has never been cleared for agriculture, so native plants still thrive on land. 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 around the island, mostly near the picturesque rock formation known as Admiral's Arch, inside the island's main national park.

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Georgia barrier islands

Photo: Georgia Sea Turtle Center/Facebook

Probably not the first place you think of for nature viewing, the barrier islands off the mainland coast of Georgia are actually teeming with marine wildlife. Loggerhead turtles have recently begun to nest along the Georgia barrier islands in much greater numbers, demonstrating a resurgence of this still endangered species. There have even been manatee sightings in the shallow brackish waters on several islands and along the mainland coast.

Cumberland Island National Seashore has 18 miles of beaches that draw turtles during the summer nesting season. Shore birds and wading birds, like egrets and herons, are a common sight along the beaches, as well. If you really want to immerse yourself in this natural setting, you can apply for an internship locating and monitoring sea turtle nesting zones. Neighboring Jekyll Island, meanwhile, is home to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which specializes in rehabilitating injured or ill loggerheads.

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St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/flickr

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, lay their eggs early in the springtime. Unfortunately, these turtles are critically endangered, so there are tight restrictions on visiting nesting areas. The smaller green and hawksbill turtles nest later in the year. At some point between March and November, at least one of these species of turtle nests on virtually every beach 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 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

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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. Boulders Beach (pictured) on False Bay (not far from Cape Town), is home to a large African penguin colony. The beach is a popular tourist attraction, but it is managed by South Africa's National Park Service, so you have to pay a fee to enter. The small remote-feeling De Hoop Nature Reserve boasts a large number of land-based animals, but the biggest draw during the winter migration season are the southern right whales that can be seen easily from the park's beaches and trails. During the day, you maybe be able to see as many as a dozen right whales at a time while standing on the beach.

Closer to Cape Town, Hout Bay is home to a large seal population. The seals congregate on an offshore island that is off limits to humans (you have to see the seals while on a boat). These mammals also draw a large number of fearsome great white sharks, who feed on the marine mammals — sometimes right in front of stunned seal watchers.

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Point Reyes, California

Photo: Frank Schulenburg/flickr

The Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in California. Located only 30 miles to the northwest of San Francisco, this area is easy to access and therefore a popular tourist destination. It not only receives a high number of human visitors, but it is also a hot spot for 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 swim just offshore. Point Reyes has become so popular that the park now operates a shuttle service from exterior parking lots to special seal-viewing areas along the shoreline.

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Lahaina, Maui

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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 8,000 humpback whales come to the calm waters on Maui's south and west coasts each year to breed. Near the west coast town of Lahaina, you can often view several whale groups at the same time.

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 also breaching (jumping partially out of the water). If you go down to the water, you can sometimes put your head under the surface (with the aid of a snorkel) and listen to the songlike whale calls.