Wild Side Specialty Tours: Snorkeling with Wild Dolphins on Oahu

I’ve snorkeled plenty in recent years – memorable trips include introducing the activity to my kids in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, swimming in crystal clear Caribbean water with my husband on our honeymoon and giggling in waves off of the Kauai coast with my mother-in-law. But none of these excursions can compare to the amazing adventure I experienced snorkeling with Wild Side Specialty Tours last month, where we got up close and personal with wild dolphins. Yes, I swam above and next to these amazing creatures during one very memorable last day on Oahu.

All geared up, and ready to go!

Here’s why our Wild Side Specialty Tours half-day excursion was so great:

Safety first: We spent a good half hour docked at the Waianae Boat Harbor getting instruction from our enthusiastic guide Lynn, as well as our catamaran captain Downing. We were shown how to walk safely around the swaying craft, what to do if we started feeling nauseous (chew ginger and move to the back of the boat; better yet, use patches beforehand if you’re prone to motion sickness) and how we were to swim with the dolphins (not at them) once we spotted them in the open water (“wet-iquette”).

Attentive service: Lynn took the time to make sure our provided snorkeling equipment, as well as our buoyancy belts, fit properly. She let us know we could snack on granola bars or get drinks as needed (a tasty lunch of sandwiches and chips was included, too). She shared her wealth of information about the marine life we saw, and was happy to answer our (many) questions throughout the day

Dolphins swim right next to the catamaran.

Small group size: The maximum number of snorkeling participants on the Alaka’i, is six. This is world’s better than some boats that were tracking dolphins, which held 20 or more people. With our small group of five, we were able to ready ourselves on the stern of our boat and hop in all together at the most opportune time to swim with the dolphins. Also, it was fun getting to know the trio of sisters also on our trip.

Personalized adventure: Lynn asked us at the start of our day what our goal was for the trip, and we unanimously said that spotting and swimming with dolphins were key, while turtles and fish were secondary. That’s why we decided as a group to head to the dolphin pods first (with other boat companies), rather than “kill time” where sea turtles hang out and hope that the dolphins would still be around after the other boats moved out. Turns out, we got to see all of the marine life, anyway!

Perched on the stern of the boat, waiting to get the "Jump in!" instruction from our guide.

Snorkelers are active spotters: Our eyes were focused on the ocean as we were asked to look out for dolphins, right alongside our guide and captain. We were taught to say, “Dolphins at 3 o’clock!” if they were off the starboard side and learned how to gauge, via the horizon, about how far away they were.. The Best of the West half-day tour is definitely an interactive, all-hands-on-deck trip, in that we collectively worked together to make the most of our time on the water.

Dolphins about 40 feet below us in the ocean.

Adrenaline rush, times 10: When we spotted pods in the distance, captain Downing on the upper-level of the catamaran, let Lynn know which way they were swimming. He positioned the boat appropriately, while we, quick-as-bunnies, lined up on the stern with our snorkels and masks ready to go. Then it was hop in and start swimming in their general direction; in the excitement, it was hard to remember not to splash our fins too much, to scare them away (though later, Lynn commended us for our smooth swimming skills).

We actually entered the water to swim with the dolphins three separate times. The first two encounters, pods of 20, 30, maybe even 40 creatures were swimming together maybe 30 or 40 feet below us. The third time I went in, it was after the others had, and I was many yards away from the group, but that turned out to be serendipitous: I actually saw (what I think was) a mama and baby dolphin at my eye level for a few moments. (During which I was kicking myself for not strapping on my waterproof GoPro camera for a close-up photo!)

Our friend, Mr. Sea Turtle.

Turtles and fish, too: When the dolphins decided they’d had enough of us, and the pods became harder to spot, we made our way over to an area off shore dubbed the turtle spa, cleaning station or car wash, because fish gather to nibble on the bacteria and algae on turtles’ shells. Our intrepid guide Lynn saw a huge – huge! – sea turtle leisurely swimming around, and we, like excited kids, pointed and smiled (hard to do through the snorkel mouthpiece) and followed him for a good 10 minutes. Schools of hundreds of paletail unicorn fish swam right in front of and through our group. Again, I wished I’d turned on the video function on my camera to capture that scene of having fish swimming right at my face!

Giant school of fish.

Note: I am glad I had my Wheaties that morning, as swimming in ocean water is strenuous, though the buoyancy belt and good fins do help. Of course, you don’t have to be following marine life all over the ocean like we did; if you want to relax on the boat and forego a couple of hops in the water, that’s fine, too.

Frolicking Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin.

Good for all ages: As was common throughout our adults-only trip to Oahu, my husband and I commented to each other, “The kids would love this.” Frankly, I think our 11-year-old could have kept up better in the water when we were speedily swimming in the direction of a spotted dolphin pod or keeping tabs on our friend the sea turtle. But our nine-year-old definitely would have appreciated how close we got to the striped fish. From the boat, we all loved watching the spinner dolphins swim past in the water, and even leap, play and twist in the air – true to their “spinner” name.  Lynn told me there’s no stringent age minimum for participating in the Best of the West adventure. Indeed, if we ever return to Oahu as a family, swimming with the dolphins is high on our list of repeat adventures!

Thanks to Wild Side Specialty Tours for hosting me and Quent last month. SoCalGal Jennifer Miner also swam with the dolphins on Oahu last year; her thoughtful description of her experience is well worth a click!

2 Comments on "Wild Side Specialty Tours: Snorkeling with Wild Dolphins on Oahu"

  1. Simply gorgeous! I’ve been snorkeling quite a few times in Florida and the Caribbean and have yet to see dolphin like that… love it.

  2. Another great place to snorkel with dolphins as well is Cancun. You should come whenever you have the chance, you will want to stay here forever! And you can do so many similar ativities here, you will never have enough of it.

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