My First Time Swimming With Dolphins In Hawaii

Mama and Baby “Swim with, not at.”  That was the advice Captain Tori from Wild Side Hawai’i wanted us to remember most.  Swim WITH the dolphins, not AT them.  Sitting on the swim step of the Alaka’i, getting ready to slip into the water with mask, snorkel and fins on, I felt my heart rate increase.  We were waiting for the signal and our group of six plus Melissa, our in water guide and naturalist, was full of nervous chatter and joking.  The type of chatter that points to a deeper excitement few of us know what to do with, so we talk excitedly about anything and everything.

“Ok, go ahead.  Get in and start swimming,” Tori calls from the flying bridge as she positions us near the path of the approaching pod of dolphins.  Off the swim step we plunge into water slightly warmer than an average swimming pool.  After bobbing back to the surface I look to Melissa, now in the water as well, to see which direction we should swim.  It’s easy to get turned around in the excitement but she is there to keep a watchful eye and make sure everyone stays safe.  She points off to my left.

I look down and can hear my quickened breathing through the snorkel.  Unlike times when I have been scuba diving and wanted to slow my respiration, right now I don’t care.  I was told I would need to swim fast when the dolphins showed up.  I can see all the way to the sea floor approximately 40 feet below us (or 6 fathoms for you nautical buffs out there).  Scanning left and right I don’t see many fish, just ocean water tinted a pale green with a bit of sand kicked up from the bottom.  Some water sneaks down my snorkel from the splashing surf and I cough slowly, forcing the water out of the tube.  My mask starts a slow leak and I fiddle with my hair and the straps to stop it.  Where are those dolphins?

There’s almost never any guarantee when mother nature is involved.  While the waters off the coast of Waianae on Oahu’s West coast contain many resident and transient pods of dolphins, they are still wild beasts given to their own desires and needs.  There are some resting grounds for the dolphins in the vicinity of Waianae Harbor which is why this area is popular for those wishing a chance to view or swim with these playful and social mammals.  Better odds, but still no money back guarantee.  The experienced marine biologists of Wilde Side Hawai’i, however, do have an excellent track record with not only spotting dolphins but giving their clients a chance to swim with them.

As for me, I’m still waiting.  Waiting’s not at all bad, mind you.  A bright Pacific sun warms my back and the water all around me while I float face down, arms at my side.  To swim with (not at!) dolphins it’s best to look like a fish and not use arms while swimming.  I scan left and right again.

Eight gray bodies come into my periphery and my head snaps to the right, eyes widening.  Wow!  My breath is brought up short when I spot the dolphins just below me and to my right.  And they are moving fast!  My breath returns as I turn left and kick for all I’ve got.  Swim with, not at (I’ll admit it, my first instinct was to dive down aiming right at the sleek creatures for a better look).  The dolphins are now behind me and below, making viewing difficult lest I bend my neck too much and dunk the end of my snorkel below the surface.  But in no time they catch up to me.

They come up off to my left and about 20 feet away.  My most vivid memories in life are at those moments when I am fully present and my mind stops thinking long enough to simply take in the majesty of life in front of me.  This is how I know I was present when the dolphins pulled even with me.  I didn’t lock eyes with any of them or exchange knowing winks from one air loving mammal to another.  But for those few moments I experienced a better understanding and appreciation for these amazing swimmers than any stack of text books or hours of video could ever hope to accomplish.  These dolphins were real.  Real, normal dolphins doing their dolphin thing where they swim from here to there better than any Olympic swimmer.  And yet, I’m in reverence of their simplicity at that moment.

They move through the water with grace and ease.  I exhale a large breath and take in as much air as I can before diving down below the surface.  Sunlight filters down from the surface and paints curving ribbons across the dolphins’ backs. There’s no way I can come anywhere near them as they are already pulling ahead.  But I want to be nearer to them.  Below the surface as they are.  I want to know more about these curious eight creatures.  Looking back I see how completely full my world was in those moments.  Me and eight dolphins.  Nothing else existed as I tried to keep up.  But soon I was forced to return to the surface for air.  Blowing the water out of my snorkel and gulping in sea air, I slow my pace.

The pod is moving further ahead of me and my world begins to expand again.  I’m aware of the surface water and the sea floor comes into focus again.  I look back for the rest of my group and find them bobbing on the surface.  I notice the sound of the Alaka’i’s engines vibrating through the water.  Were they running this entire time?  Until my senses began returning, I hadn’t realized how much they had shut off while I was with the dolphins.

In those moments under water, everything had fallen away except the beauty of the dolphins.

Back aboard our vessel the chatter has changed from nervous to excited.  There is a clear difference.   I sit mostly silent as I usually do in the moments after such powerful events.  Words fail me as I listen to other’s perspectives on the swim, nodding my agreement at times.  Still now, I’ve only given you the tip of the iceberg (we had a second, longer swim with a large pod as well).  Because I realize if I launch into a narrative of all I experienced, form the inside out, in those moments, it’ll be just that; my narrative.

I’d rather encourage you to get yourself to Hawai’i and experience the thrill firsthand.  I can guarantee it will stir something inside you and may give you a new appreciation for the natural world, even if your views are well rounded already.

Later that night, hours after the swim, I walked amongst the bustle and crowded streets of Waikiki when I came upon a statue near the beach.  It was a life-like representation of three dolphins swimming in tight formation.  Instantly a smile came across face, my breath deepened and my eyes moistened just a bit.  A wave of emotion from viewing a stone statue.  It let me know how deeply such a quick encounter with real dolphins in the wild had changed me.


If you’re looking for other information about my trip to Hawaii and the fun to be had, us the scroll box on the top left and look for Hawaii.  Or, take a look at for a wide variety of things to do on the islands.

8 Replies to “My First Time Swimming With Dolphins In Hawaii”

  1. Amy @ The Q Family

    Wow! What an experience! Most of the swimming with the dolphins I have seen at other places are in fact just swimming with confined dolphins. This.. This is one experience that I would love to try.

  2. Go2Grl

    This is truly a magical experience and you shared the magic and emotion through your words beautifully.

  3. Visty

    Wonderful read. Growing up in Florida I always loved to see the dolphins swimming by just on the other side of the sandbar, and I wished I could be with them.

  4. Wild Side Hawaii

    Wow is right. Peter, you truly grasped “swim with, not at” and we are very grateful. This is the first story to capture the feeling of being “present in the moment”, the intensity of that moment, and to give credit to the animals who spurned in I dont know how long.

    Too often travel writers we have onboard frustratingly write little more than what one can garner from our website, or worse, wrong information.

    To share so eloquently the nature connection that we were able to foster, you are truly and delightfully gifted. We sure appreciate it.

    Tori Cullins
    Wild Side Specialty Tours

  5. Ulla

    I’m impressed. I’m asking for my friend in Germany,
    How can we contact you to learn more details. She wants to come in February or March. Do you have a web address I can send to her?
    Ulla Meyerhof, Kapolei

    Can we stop by one day and talk to you?

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