When I was planning my trip to the South Pacific there was one thing that I really, really, really wanted to do. I wanted to go swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. But, not just any dolphins. I wanted to swim with wild dolphins because, if I’m being honest, my past dolphin experiences weren’t all too ethical and I needed that to change.
My Past Mistakes of Swimming with Dolphins
Swimming with dolphins is one of those activities that you can find around the world. I still remember the first time I saw a commercial for it (I think it was for Atlantis resort in the Bahamas). I was with my mom and my brother, and all three of us gaped in wonder at the TV at what we saw. It looked amazing and ten-year-old me quickly added swimming with dolphins to my bucket list.
At that age, with zero knowledge of marine life and ethical tourism, I had no idea that swimming with wild dolphins was neither ethical nor responsible. Hell, at that age I didn’t even know what that meant. That ignorance sadly stuck with me when I visited Florida at the age of 20 and swam with a captive dolphin (his name was Lester) at Discovery Cove. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it at the time. So much so that a couple of years later, when I was 22, my brother and I swam with captive dolphins again in the Dominican Republic.
This time, however, the alarm bells went off.
While I will by no means defend Discovery Cove for offering the opportunity to swim with captive dolphins, their set up and treatment of the animals was completely different than the sad little pool I saw in the Dominican Republic. While I smiled for the camera and came home with photos of a dolphin kissing my cheek, I didn’t feel very good about the experience.
While I didn’t swim with captive dolphins again after that, it wasn’t until I was 26 and learning to scuba dive in Thailand that I really began to learn about ocean conservation, responsible tourism, and ethical practice when it came to animals and tourism. Part of that was because I barely spent any time by the ocean. Additionally, while the call for responsible animal tourism isn’t exactly new, there wasn’t as much education on it back then. However, the big push for me was in Thailand when I was learning to dive. Being surrounded by avid divers and marine conservationists allowed me to learn about a whole other side of travel. About how to respect and help protect the ocean and everything that lived in it. I loved diving and I loved the critters that I found under the waves, so it was easy for me to adapt to the simple rules of look don’t touch.
On top of the importance of protecting the marine life, diving taught me something else: being with animals in their natural habitat is a million times better than seeing them captive. Which is why, after two unethical experiences, I really wanted to be able to swim with wild dolphins and Hawaii seemed like the perfect place to do so.
Swimming with Dolphins in Oahu, Hawaii
A quick search about swimming with dolphins in Hawaii brought up the usual captive dolphin experiences. Which is really sad. Not just because it’s wrong but because Hawaii is home to so many dolphins and I know from friends who have spent a lot of time or live there that seeing wild dolphins is actually pretty common. I guess the main draw though is that you can’t touch the wild ones because it’s unsafe for them but, for some screwed up reason, you can force the captive ones to drag you through a pool. Explain that one to me.
Needless to say, that was not the experience I wanted. I wanted to swim with the wild dolphins. To see them in their natural habitat. So I kept looking. I actually went to one of my favourite tour sites, Get Your Guide, which I know uses a lot of good local tour providers, to see if they had anything to offer. There is was: A dolphin watching and snorkel excursion in Oahu. I read through the summary which sounded pretty good, but I wasn’t 100% convinced so I found the tour provider and did more research there. Pleased with what I found, I quickly booked my spot on the early morning tour and hoped that my research had paid off.
The tour started with an early morning pickup from my hostel in Waikiki. After a couple more pick-ups we were on our way to Hawaii’s west coast and the home to some local pods of spinner dolphins.
Upon arrival we were fitted for fins, masks and snorkels, and lifejackets then headed down to the pier where we boarded our boat for the day. Our briefing was short but stern. There was no doubt that the number one priority of this trip was keeping the dolphins safe. For us, this meant no swimming towards them or chasing them- let the dolphins come to us. It was made very clear that anyone who disregarded these rules would be immediately pulled out and refused re-entry for the rest of the tour. It sounded pretty harsh but I smiled inwardly as our captain’s commitment- it meant that I had picked the right tour.
As we pulled away from the marina we quickly came across a pod of spinner dolphins. They leaped into the air, spinning quickly, before crashing back down in the waves. Cameras at the ready we all watched and laughed as they played- diving under the boat only to jump up on the other side. They didn’t stick around but they were curious enough so we went further ahead, stopped, jumped into the water and waited. No splashing, no movement- just floating in the hopes that we would catch their interest and they would approach us.
Apparently we were interesting enough, because they came. The dolphin pod swam right beside us, squeaking excitedly as they went. While they didn’t stop, there was no doubt that they were curious.
Back on board the boat we drove further away and, again got into the water and waited. This time the dolphins got even closer as they swam by. One even swimming past me upside down in a playful manner. It was beautiful and it was amazing.
We got in the water with the dolphins a few more times over the course of the next couple of hours (different pods). Then the captain decided to give them a break and we took off to a nearby reef where we had time to snorkel with the reef fish, sea turtles, and a white tip reef shark.
The morning sped by quickly but I loved every moment of it and was thrilled to see how concerned the staff and crew were in regards to the dolphins’ wellbeing and safety. It was the perfect tour and I could finally tick off swimming with dolphins in Hawaii- responsibly- from my bucket list.
For those interested swimming with wild dolphins in Oahu, you can book the tour that I took here.
What to Bring with you for Swimming with Dolphins in Oahu
If you’ve decided to book this tour to swim with the wild dolphins in Oahu (YAY!) then you’ll want to make sure to bring a few things with you.
Snorkels, masks, and fins and provided but, I also prefer to bring my own. Sometimes masks get warped and stretched a bit and don’t fit your face properly. I also kind of think that sharing snorkels is gross. I know they get washed but- blech. If you don’t have your own mask and snorkel, it might be worth buying some for your Hawaii vacation. After all, you’ll probably want to use them quite a bit. I love and use TUSA brand and you can get a good set for a decent price here.
Another thing you will absolutely want is an underwater camera. There is a photographer that joins the tour but you need to pay for the photo package (and let’s be honest, those are never cheap). Even if you do decide to buy pictures it’s always nice to be able to take your own. I personally use a GoPro 5 Session for my underwater videos and photography and I really love it. It’s waterproof up to 10m, so you don’t need the special housing for this tour. However, I do highly recommend you invest in the floating handler and make sure you strap it to your wrist.
You may also want to consider bringing a rash guard. Not only will it help protect you from the sun, but it also adds an extra layer of warmth. Since you are floating in the water waiting for the dolphins, you may find it a little bit cooler than you would if you were actually moving around. You can find a good UV protective rash guard for women here and for men here.
A dry bag is something else I definitely recommend that you bring. There is a place on the boat to keep things dry and the crew will open and close it for you, but I found it easier to just keep my dry bag with my small camera and phone with me at all times so I could take photos as I wanted without having to bug someone to open and close the big box and, therefore, potentially missing the opportunity. You can get a dry bag here.
Finally, don’t forget sunscreen! But, not just any sunscreen. You want to make sure you have reef safe sunscreen a) because it’s better and b) because Hawaii is moving to ban all non-reef-safe sunscreens. I recommend this brand which has been tried and tested and contains none of the bad ingredients and chemicals.
Swimming with the wild dolphins in Oahu was one of the coolest experiences of my life and was a million times better than swimming with captive ones. If you are an animal lover, then don’t even consider the captive options. Sign up for this tour and I promise- even though there is no riding involved- that you will love it.