Experience the wonder of water

There’s something about the warm weather that turns our thoughts towards water. Lounging on the beach, staying at a little cottage on the lake, diving into a pool and “getting out on the water” pleasantly occupies our daydreams.

However, while we think about relaxation and recreation experts warn us to keep our eyes on the “big picture” beyond the postcard ideal. What happens to our water sources affects all of us, whether we live close to the water or not. After all, water covers 70 to 75 of the earth’s surface, and it makes up the majority of our bodies too.

So what does this mean for your travel plans? While you’re enjoying the water, take time to really experience it and learn about it too. In honour of World Oceans Day on June 8 — an initiative first introduced by the Canadian Government back in 1992 — here are some activities and destination ideas for experiencing the awesome power of this natural resource:

Walk on water (frozen, that is)

Why do it: The effects of climate change are perhaps most noticeable at the ends of the earth, like Greenland (and other High Arctic destinations) and Antarctica. There melting ice and the changing landscape are putting wildlife and ecosystems at risk. Ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow hold more than two thirds of the earth’s supply of fresh water, according to the US Geological Survey. (Not to mention the fact that the scenery is spectacular).

Where to go: The Polar Regions aren’t the only place to walk on, ski or see ice. In Norway, travellers can take a safari on a dogsled out on the Finnmark Plateau. In Canada, travellers can take a “snowcoach” tour up to the Columbia Icefields, nestled among the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. On the other side of the world, helicopter tours take sight-seers up to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on New Zealand’s South Island.

If you prefer your ice at a distance, try Newfoundland and Labrador instead. Every year, thousands of icebergs make their way down “Iceberg Alley” after breaking off the polar icecaps in Greenland. These marvels can be seen from the province’s shorelines, or you can take a boat tour for a closer look. (For more information, see Spring fling with the bergs).

Take the plunge: snorkel or scuba dive

Why do it: There’s lots to see under water, like the many animals and plant life that dwell under the surface. (They’re also affected by climate change and pollution). In many places, you can also see the remains of ships who met their end thanks to the power of the sea.

Where to go: There are many places where you can learn to scuba or snorkel — like coastal areas of the Americas — but the place that gets the nod for beauty and diversity is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Located off the north-east coast of Queensland, it’s home to over 400 types of coral and 1500 species of fish, and is the natural habitat for threatened species like the dugong (sea cow). Sure, you can see this 2000 km coral reef from space but a peek beneath the surface will offer some spectacular views. (See the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website for more information).

See the “hidden” sources

Why do it: only a small fraction of the earth’s usable water (for humans, anyway) is in lakes and rivers. The rest is hidden, flowing through the ground. Secluded pools and underground lakes provide unique views — and sometimes great places to swim.

Where to go: There are hidden lakes in Antarctica (Lake Vostok) and below the French Alps (Lake Tignes), but if you’re looking for warmth try one of the many cenotes in the Yucatán Penisula in Mexico (which has over 1500 of them).

A cenote is a type of sink hole that contains ground water — it’s created when the ceiling of a cavern partially or completely collapses. Some look like an open pool of water, while others are caverns with clear water and a “sky light”. Some can only be reached by cave diving, and others are large enough for some snorkelling in the clear, ground-filtered waters. The most famous ones include the Cenote Sagradoin Chichén Itzá and Dos Ojos in Quintana Roo . (For more information see, Yucatán Today).

Follow its course

Why do it: Hop in a kayak, rent a boat or try a cruise of a different kind to explore some of the world’s many water spots. You’ll be able to see scenic panoramas you won’t spy from land as well as some of the local wildlife too. Some places you can only get to by water, and the ferry ride is part of the fun.

Where to go:Almost anywhere there’s a river or lake there’s an opportunity to get aboard a watercraft, whether it’s renting a boat, taking a short boat tour, or a week long cruise. (Or go white-water rafting, if you dare).

For a river cruise, try a tour of some of the world’s most famous rivers like the Nile (Middle East), the Amazon (South America), the Yangzi (Asia), the Mississippi (USA) or the Danube (Europe). A little closer to home, travel parts of the St. Lawrence River to see the Thousands Islands or go whale watching.

If you prefer to stay on foot, keep your eyes open for hiking trails and scenic drives that hug the water’s edge. For example, there’s the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the South West Coast Path in England and the Great Ocean Walk in Australia. Trails can be very long and challenging in spots, so it may only be possible to tackle a small section on your trip.

Watch it fall

Why do it: Waterfalls are a force to be reckoned with — and they’re even used to generate electricity too. They’re pretty to look at, but feeling the moist air and hearing the roar of falling water leaves you with an impression of how powerful they really are.

Where to go: Here in North America we’re familiar with Niagara Falls, but there are higher ones to be seen across the country, including British Columbia’s Della Falls — which is almost eight times the height of the Horseshoe Falls — and James Bruce Falls, which is one of the top ten tallest waterfalls in the world. Depending on the location, there may be different options like hiking or helicopter rides to see the falls.

For a look at the unusual, the St. John River in New Brunswick along with Wager Bay and Barrier Inlet in Nunavut also display a unique tidal phenomenon: Reversing Falls. (Natural Resources Canada has a list of waterfalls in Canada here).

If you’re looking for some of the grandest waterfalls in the world, try Angel Falls in Venezuela, Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Sutherland Falls, New Zealand. For a full list of the world’s waterfalls, include a Top 100 list, see the World Waterfall Database.

Celebrate at a festival

Why do it: Religion, mythology and culture have the right idea — water is something to appreciate and celebrate rather than consume or pollute. It cleanses and provides nourishment, but it’s also enjoyable too!

Where to go: Here are a few of the water-related festivals around the world:

Festa de Agua, Spain. Be prepared to get soaked if you’re in Villagarcia de Arousa on August 16. After honouring the town’s patron saint in the morning, the locals get out the buckets and hoses in the afternoon for a serious soaking. The tradition started a couple of decades ago when the town was going through a major drought.

Wan Awk Pansa, Thailand and Laos. This festival marks the end of Vassa, or Buddhist Lent, in October when the rainy season ends. It’s also the evening when the famous “Naga fireballs” can be seen rising from the Mekong River.

– New Year, Southeast Asia. This April festival is a time of cleansing to mark the start of a new year in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Traditionally, people bath Buddha statues and pour water over the hands of relatives to ask for a blessing. If you’re in the country, indulge in the water fights but remember the festival’s cultural importance.

– Kuala Lumpur International Water Festival, Malaysia. There’s a practical rather than spiritual reason behind this month-long festival in May. Everyone tries to keep cool with water sports and activities.

Learn about conservation

Why do it: This is a no brainer — we’re all looking for ways to live a little greener these days. Learning about the dangers affecting our natural environments means we’ll be better prepared to protect them — and more motivated to put our plans into action.

Where to go: Just about anywhere in the world, including museums, galleries, parks and research facilities that focus on water and nature. There are also many volunteer vacation opportunities in developing countries where clean, running water is a luxury. Extra hands are welcome to help with water-related projects.

Whether you’re travelling or staying closer to home this June, watch for events to celebrate and education on World Ocean Day. This year, events are planned in cities along the coast, like Halifax, NS, St.Andrews, NB, Port McNeill, BC, and Sointula, BC. The David Suzuki Foundation is partnering with communities around the country for Oceans Day events. (For more information, see the Ocean Project website).

Next spring, keep your eyes out for annual events to mark World Water Day (March 22) and Earth Day (late April).

Still want to head to the beach or cottage? That’s okay too. Wherever and however you choose to enjoy water, make sure to respect it by keeping it clean.

Additional sources: US Geological Survey, Lonely Planet’sBest in Travel 2009, World Events Guide.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Richard Carey