Where the Wild Things Are – Swimming with Dolphins

“Warning – Potentially life changing.  Certainly life affirming.”

During my recent trip to Oahu, Hawaii my best friend Stephanie and I had the experience of a lifetime with Wild Side Specialty Tours.  We spent 3 1/2 hours out on the coastal Pacific waters onboard the Island Spirit catamaran with Captain Downing Braley and Head Naturalist Elizabeth Hartford.  Being able to check off this monumental bucket list item and observe the spinner dolphins and other wildlife in their natural state was one of the best aspects of the entire trip.

I discovered Wild Side Specialty Tours through an Ecotourism course I was enrolled in at Slippery Rock University.  Throughout the class, we received instruction on qualifications for an ecotour company, the importance of sustainable living, the need for the protection of biodiversity, etc.  As part of the curriculum, pairs of students were to select an ecotour company to spotlight in a course project.  This in-depth project would involve a research paper, personal interviews with company staff, and a presentation detailing the information gathered.

Two of my peers conducted their project on Wild Side and after listening to their informative presentation, I knew I had to contact the crew and thank them for their dedication to sustainable tourism and always ensuring that the wildlife’s well being is the top priority.

One of the most moving and inspirational aspects about Wild Side were the answers they provided in their website’s “FAQ” section surrounding dolphin interactions.  As a dedicated supporter of cetacean anti-captivity movements such as those detailed in documentaries such as The Cove and Blackfish, I was touched to discover that Wild Side believes that dolphin and whale interactions are best left to natural and unencumbered methods, rather than coercion or other inhumane practices and circumstances.  The following quote from their website summarizes one of my favorite parts of the entire business:

 If petting dolphins is what you need to do, you should visit a captive facility (amusement park) where you will be led to believe that dolphins have chosen to be there to please you, that dolphins like you, that they enjoy being petted and being fed dead fish, that they like to do all kinds of neat tricks. […] Our encounters are designed to be at the dolphins’ pace, on their terms, and at their activity level.  It’s not a captive-dolphin swim program, with no choice (likewise it’s not a controlled environment).  For the dolphins, it’s a stimulating activity.  If they’re not enjoying it, we won’t do it. 

We arrived at Waianae Bay early in the morning on May 18th, filled with excitement for what was to come.  After a safety briefing and snorkel equipment fitting session, we left the harbor and headed north along the shore, about a mile from the coast.  We quickly moved away from another tour company’s boats and nearly 30 snorkelers.  One of the best aspects about the tour was that it was limited to six participants, perfect for an individualized experience.

Captain Downing got word of a pod of dolphins that was a couple miles up along the coast, so while we were en route to the location, Elizabeth intelligently explained proper wild dolphin swim “wetiquette.”  Swimming with the pod, not at them, is the key to placing yourself right in the middle of the pod and keeping up with their antics for dozens of yards at a time.

Once we got to the cove where the dolphins were relaxing, we got “water ready” and made our way into the ocean.  The first thing that struck me was how clear the water was.  This was not cold, murky Atlantic water, but a perfectly clear and warm tropical ocean.  I could see straight down 60 feet to the bottom of the seafloor and could even distinguish the sand ripples and tiny silver fish swimming in schools.

After scanning the surface for a few moments, we spotted the pod and slowly swam their direction. While we were waiting for the dolphins to warm up to our presence we spotted a juvenile green sea turtle cruising along the seafloor.  He might have been heading to the “turtle cleaning station” that we saw later on in the tour.

Wild dolphins are semi-nocturnal, doing many of their activities during the evening and night hours.  So when we joined them in the cove, they were in their resting period.  When 1/3 of the pod would surface for air, 2/3 of the dolphins would be slowly swimming closer to the bottom of the ocean. This is known as their “winding down” period.  Then when the entire pod is diving, they are sleeping and preparing for the next major activity.  Dolphins are conscious air breathers, so they don’t sleep as other mammals do.  They shut down half of their brain for short periods of time, and then switch to the other side.  Luckily for us, the pod members were continually diving and then resurfacing for air, so we were right in the midst of their activity.

We were finally close enough to the dolphins to start merging into the pod.  Using the dolphins’ intricate body language and echolocation signals, Elizabeth told us that we could start swimming alongside the pod.  The most magical part of the entire tour happened when about 12 or so dolphins came up from behind me and started swimming below me, about 40 feet down.  Hearing their clicks and whistles felt completely surreal and it was such a blessing from the Lord to be able to experience such an incredible opportunity.

A few dolphins broke off from that pod of 12 and came up closer to the surface on my left.  At the closest point, I was about 15 feet from one of the ocean’s most intelligent and self-aware creatures.

At this point the dolphins were picking up speed and heading along the coast again, so we boarded the boat and followed them for a bit. This was when we got to view the dolphins from the catamaran’s nets.  The netting allowed us to be right above the water while the dolphins swam in front of, beside, and underneath the boat.  We were surrounded by a pod of about 30 dolphins and we even got to see a juvenile dolphin that was just a couple months old!  Seeing the dolphins in their playful state made us realize why exactly they’re called spinner dolphins.  We got back in the water a few minutes later, but the dolphins had had enough interaction for the day.  So we boarded the boat again and headed back towards the harbor.

We had one last stop to make before concluding the tour.  Our last snorkeling spot would be at a reef that was about 1/2 mile offshore,  This is where we got to see countless species of wildlife, some that are only found in the Hawaiian Islands.  Millet butterflyfish, Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, trumpetfish, pufferfish, schools of yellow tang, and zebrafish.  We even got to see  Hawaiian red pencil sea urchins, whose spines used to be used to write on slate chalkboards.  Hawaii’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a triggerfish, even made an appearance towards the end of the tour.

It was so interesting to be able to not only see these fish living on the reef, but hear them as well.  Some of the types of fish eat the coral and their tiny teeth against the coral make a crackling/crunching sound.  Since sound waves travel so well underwater, it fills the water around the reef and is indescribably fascinating.

As mentioned before, we also saw multiple adult green sea turtles at the reef’s turtle cleaning station.  This station is located at a massive underwater boulder off the coast of Makaha Beach.  When sea turtles have an abundance of barnacles and algae, they come to this station to allow damselfish, angelfish, tangs, wrasse, and other algae eaters to clean their shells.  This benefits the turtle, feeds the fish, and is a necessary aspect of a healthy oceanic ecosystem.

Wild Side never guarantees wildlife sightings or interactions, and rightly so.  They explain:

We feel if we guarantee something (especially something we have no control over like weather or wildlife sightings), then the pressure to make it happen becomes foremost.  When meeting the guarantee becomes priority, then safety and providing a quality experience slips out the window.  We also feel this is what makes our company unique.  Our motto is ‘Tours with Integrity,’ and we do our utmost to uphold that motto, while providing a quality experience.

Because of this mindset of putting the health of the wildlife above customer guarantees, I feel even more blessed to have experienced such a wide variety of Hawaiian wildlife on the tour.  In an age of “loving nature to death,” it was astounding to find a company that holds the following as some of their core beliefs:

Wild Side educates guests about the plight of our local marine life, promotes environmental awareness and stewardship to people from around the world, and leaves them with compassion for our sea life Ohana.  Every member of our team works hard daily to make sure our geusts are safe, having the time of their life, and leave with a better understanding of our host culture and precious resources.  As a Company we strive to make sure our Guests leave the boat with a smile on their faces and an understanding of why we love what we do.

Swimming with dolphins in their environment and witnessing some of the vast Creation that the Lord made while in Hawaii was one of the best parts of the entire trip, and I can’t wait to return in the future.


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