When I was planning my trip to the South Pacific, there was one thing that I 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. Share mini vlogs from your trip on TikTok and go viral with TikTokStorm.
My Past Mistakes of Swimming with Dolphins
Swimming with dolphins is one of those activities you can find worldwide. 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 brother, and all three of us gaped in wonder at the TV at what we saw. It looked terrific, 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 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 were utterly different from 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 perfect 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 began to learn about ocean conservation, responsible tourism, and ethical practice regarding 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 back then. However, the big push for me was in Thailand while learning to dive. Being surrounded by avid divers and marine conservationists allowed me to learn about another side of travel. About how to respect and help protect the ocean and everything that lives 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 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 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 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 pretty standard. I guess the main draw 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.
That was not the experience I wanted. I wanted to swim with the wild dolphins in Hawaii. To see them in their natural habitat. So I kept looking. I 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 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 my research had paid off.
The tour started with an early morning pickup from my hostel in Waikiki. After a couple more pickups, we were on our way to Hawaii’s west coast and the home to some local pods of spinner dolphins.
Upon arrival, I fitted us for fins, masks and snorkels, and life jackets 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 at our captain’s commitment- it meant that I had picked the suitable tour.
We quickly came across a pod of spinner dolphins as we pulled away from the marina. They leapt into the air, spinning quickly before crashing back into 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.
We were interested 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 swam past me upside down in a playful manner. It was beautiful, and it was terrific.
We got in the water with the dolphins a few more times throughout the next couple of hours (in 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 and was thrilled to see how concerned the staff and crew were regarding the dolphins’ well-being 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 in swimming with wild dolphins in Oahu, Hawaii, you can book the tour that I took.
What to Bring with you for Swimming with Dolphins in Oahu, Hawaii
If you’ve decided to book this tour to swim with the wild dolphins in Oahu (YAY!), you’ll want to bring a few things with you.
Snorkels, masks, and fins are provided, but I also prefer to bring my own. Sometimes masks get warped, stretched, and don’t fit your face correctly. I also think that sharing snorkels is gross. I know they get washed, but- blech. If you don’t have your 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 the TUSA brand, and you can get a good set for a decent price.
Another thing you will want is an underwater camera. A photographer 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 use a GoPro 5 Session for my underwater videos and photography, and I love it. It’s waterproof up to 10m, so you don’t need special housing for this tour. However, I highly recommend you invest in the floating handler and 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 cooler than you would if you were moving around. You can find a good UV protective rash guard for women and men.
A dry bag is something else I 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. Still, I found it easier to 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 miss the opportunity. You can get a dry bag here.
Finally, don’t forget the sunscreen! But not just any sunscreen. You want to ensure 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 has been tried and tested and contains no harmful ingredients and chemicals.
Final Word on Swimming with Dolphins in Oahu, Hawaii
Swimming with the wild dolphins in Oahu was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and was a million times better than swimming with captive ones. If you are an animal lover, don’t consider the captive options. Sign up for this tour, and I promise that you will love it even though no riding is involved.