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Utila, Honduras
Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis

Swim with the Biggest fish in the Sea

There are all kinds of ways to swim with sharks. Donning snorkeling gear with a reputable guide on the far side of the Caribbean Sea and floating alongside a 40-foot, 15-ton whale shark is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most peaceful. These imposing creatures — the largest fish in the sea — are actually the gentlest giants with gills on the planet.

“The ocean has always been a bit of a fear of mine, but I knew that swimming with whale sharks would be an experience I would never forget,” says Kat Brock, who recently took this plunge while visiting Utila, a reef-diving mecca in Honduras’ Bay Islands that’s home to the second-largest barrier reef on the planet — and also known for its reliable whale shark viewing.

“Utila is one of the few places in the world where you can see whale sharks every month of the year,” says Helder Pérez, a scientific advisor at the island’s Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center (WSORC), a nonprofit organization which offers four-hour snorkeling trips open to just about anyone age 8 and older. Scuba diving with whale sharks is prohibited in Honduras for a number of safety and environmental reasons, but Pérez assures that snorkeling is “a wonderful experience because they come very close to the surface to feed” — on nothing much larger than plankton, in case you were wondering.

Whale sharks gravitate to areas known as boils, vast plankton-filled feeding grounds teeming with jumping tuna (hence the appearance of boiling water) and various other sea life. While there are no guarantees that whale sharks will be in the mix, the chances are decent on any given day. What’s just as likely? Experiencing some degree of trepidation about quietly slipping into the water to meet one face to face.

“I was very nervous about jumping into the middle of a boil,” recalls Brock. “You don’t know what animals are going to be in there or how you’ll react to seeing the largest fish in the sea.” Brock ended up swimming with whale sharks seven times in that single trip. “Nothing can prepare you for being in the water next to one,” she says. “It’s a life-changing experience.” www.wsorc.org

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Pantanal, Southwestern Brazil
Joe McDonald/Corbis; Inset:Jane Sweeney/Lonely Planet Images
Up the odds of Spotting Your First Wild Jaguar

Today more than ever, the odds of glimpsing a jaguar — the world’s third-largest feline — in the wild are shrinking about as fast as its natural habitat, which once spanned from the United States to the southernmost tip of South America. Even on a jaguar-themed trip to Costa Rica in 1994, wildlife-conservation volunteer and avid nature photographer Joe Darling came up empty.

“Apparently that country has the highest population of jaguars in the world, but they’re so elusive and shy — not to mention highly endangered — that there are no guarantees,” Darling notes. But he persisted and eventually hit the jackpot in southwestern Brazil on a trip with Terra Incognita Ecotours called Pantanal: South American Savannah.

The nine-day expedition explores Brazil’s outback, the Pantanal — a sprawling tropical wetland home to hundreds of animal species and several endangered ones. Half the trip is based on a riverbank at a jaguar research camp in a remote state park where small groups quietly cruise river channels in search of the cats.

That’s where Darling finally spotted his first wild jaguar — followed by seven more over the next three days. “Eight of them,” Darling marvels. “In broad daylight, just going about their business, paying no attention to us. It still boggles my mind when I look at the photos. One jaguar would’ve been a thrill.”

The biggest thrill of all for Darling was getting to witness a chance, life-and-death wrestling match between a jaguar and an 8-foot caiman, which the jaguar won after nearly an hour.

“So far, we’ve seen multiple jaguars there on every trip — and various other ‘wow’ moments you can barely describe,” says Ged Caddick, a veteran naturalist and the founder of Terra Incognita, which runs a variety of wildlife ecotours around the world. “The mere chance of encountering an amazing animal like that in its natural environment — there’s just nothing in the world like it.” www.ecotours.com