I wanted to try swimming with wild dolphins for a while now — in fact, it’s been on my “travel experiences bucket list.” When presented with the chance to swim with wild dolphins during a recent trip to Hawaii, I signed up immediately. That was a month ago, when planning the details of this trip. And now, here I am. The water is cool, but not cold. I’m floating in it, hearing only the sound of my breathing through a snorkel. It’s a bit murky, this South Pacific water, and all I can see are the play of the shadows as shafts of light beam down. I’m in Hawaii, off the coast of Oahu. There are no signs of life. I lazily propel myself forward a few feet. It is quiet.
There is no one else to be seen, just alternating stripes of light and dark water. I strain my eyes uselessly. Waiting.
I hear them first — high pitched clicks and, somewhere, a splash. The interplay of light and shadow shifts…Suddenly, there they are, swimming around me, by me, with me. These are who I came to see; these are the dolphins. Spinner dolphins, first just a few, and then around 20 swim around me. We’ve been told not to reach out to them, and I don’t. Three dolphins swim by me several times, circling me, eying me, sizing me up. What am I to them? An alien, to be sure, but not unlike the others who come here nearly every day to share in this experience.
A baby dolphin hustles to catch up with her mother, and two adults must be a bonded pair; they rub each others’ sides affectionately. Swimming with them, I can sense their fleeting curiosity and mild indifference. There are as many people slowly bobbing up and down on the surface here as there are spinner dolphins, and we are not special. The experience, though — that is special. It’s a privilege to be able to be almost taken for granted by these wild dolphins, to be able to swim in their world for a short time. Our tour group will be leaving soon, heading to a coral reef for the second part of the trip, but we’ll be replaced by new people. The spinner dolphins will move in and out of the bay, often jumping out of the water and spinning before they splash back down. They will swim up to other Hawaii tourists with the same mix of inquisitiveness and casual acceptance. They will eat and rest and raise their calves and live their lives. What they don’t know is, they’ve changed mine.
Swimming with dolphins is a popular travel activity in Oahu and other South Pacific Islands. A couple of winters ago, my family and I did the Dolphin Quest at Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island and, at the time, I was very happy with the experience. Those were bottlenose dolphins, not native to Hawaii. The wild spinner dolphins here provided a completely different, completely thrilling experience.
Wild Side Specialty Tours offers year-round swimming with dolphins experiences. My group participated in the Morning Wildlife Cruise, a 1/2 day snorkel cruise that starts with swimming with wild dolphins, and proceeds to a reef area for snorkeling with fish an the occasional sea turtle. The crew operates off the west coast of Oahu; the Waianae Coast is predominantly low density, with the largest population of Native Hawaiians of the entire state. Wild Side Specialty Tours includes marine biologists on staff, who sail out the group. Dolphin protection is of utmost importance to the crew, and there is a discussion regarding how to minimize the disturbance to the marine wildlife we encounter. I was impressed with the crew’s commitment to the well being of the spinner dolphins. This is no party boat. In fact, it’s based on the Not-Just-for-Profit business model of environmental best practices. Wild Side Specialty Tours is a company that can be trusted to focus on the purpose of the travel experience — to get us swimming with wild dolphins in Oahu, Hawaii.