Nothing compares to coming face to face with a gentle giant in the ocean. Rare creatures like the green sea turtle, the manatee and the marine iguana are not only impressive, they also help keep marine ecosystems in balance by eating plants. For instance, seaweed is essential to a healthy reef. But too much of it can block sunlight to other forms of algae and seagrasses, which need the light to provide food energy to coral and other animals. Herbivores to the rescue. They help keep waters pristine – a major boon to your snorkeling and diving adventures.
Affectionately known as sea cows, manatees graze on grasses, weeds and algae, and weigh anywhere between 400 and 1,300 pounds. This threatened species lives in shallow fresh, brackish, or salt waters in Florida, the Amazon, and western Africa. In Florida, visit Blue Spring State Park where you can kayak or snorkel in crystal-blue water for a chance encounter with a manatee. From mid November through March, water access is closed to protect the influx of manatees attracted to the warmth here. This is actually a perfect opportunity to view hundreds of these marine mammals from the park's overlooks.
Also sometimes called sea cows, dugongs look a lot like their distant cousin, the manatee. They dwell only in coastal waters from East Africa to Australia and eat a healthy diet of seagrasses. Shark Bay, a World Heritage Site in Western Australia, is home to over 10 percent of the world's population of this vulnerable species. Dugongs are best seen here from September through November. From Perth, fly into Shark Bay Airport for easy access to Monkey Mia, where you can catch tours to see dugongs, dolphins and other marine life. Or, rent a car in Perth and take a few days to drive 500 miles north along the scenic Western Australia coast to Shark Bay. The last leg of this road trip is an awe-inspiring World Heritage Drive from Hamelin Pool to Monkey Mia.
Green Sea Turtles
Green sea turtles are the only herbivorous species of sea turtle. (They do start off carnivorous but eventually transition to a vegetarian diet.) One of the best places to swim with them is on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where they're called honu in Hawaiian. Grab your snorkeling gear and hit Laniakea Beach on the North Shore. In January, green turtles descend on the Galapagos Islands to lay eggs, which hatch from April through May. Keep in mind that nesting females and their hatchlings can be very vulnerable to human activity, so it's best not to seek them out. Instead, go snorkeling in James Bay off Santiago Island and observe them noshing on seagrasses and algae. Always keep your distance, and look, but don't touch.
The Galapagos Islands are home to this unique species of iguana that lives on land but feeds in the water. This grotesque-looking reptile may seem fierce, but the only things marine iguanas attack are algae and seaweed. Immortalized in the now famous Planet Earth II scene, in which a hatchling narrowly escapes a menacing mob of snakes, seeing a marine iguana in the flesh deserves a spot on the old bucket list. One of the biggest subspecies lives on the volcanic rocky shores of Fernandina Island. On Santa Cruz Island, snorkel with them in Tortuga Bay.
Leaf Group is a USA TODAY content partner providing general travel information. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.
Ocean Animals That Eat Plants(Photo: Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images )
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