Swim On the Wild Side

I felt a slight chill as I carefully slipped into the water. I scanned the horizon hoping to spot the gray shape that had been swimming towards our boat just a moment before.  Once I spotted the fins breaking the surface, I turned my body to swim the same direction as the figures approached. As they neared I could make out the distinct soft whistling and investigative clicks of echolocation. Right beside and beneath me were a group of 7 pacific bottlenose dolphins. I took a breath and sank beneath the surface to see their gray torpedo shapes swimming beneath me. They danced as they inspected me, sending gentle and investigative clicks in my direction. I could almost hear them inquiring, “What is that? She has a tail like ours.” (I’m a professional mermaid…true story).

Today, I was swimming with bottlenose dolphins thanks to Wild Side Specialty Tours – a small eco-tourism company that takes no more than six people at a time to meet these iconic Oahu residents.  The tour began at 8am when we departed Wai’anae boat harbor in search of some friendly and playful dolphins.  I was listed as a volunteer aboard their vessel the Alaka’i. The morning was spent talking to the six guests about the local marine environment of Hawaii and the various marine mammals that make their home in our waters. We talked about some of the challenges the groups were facing from over exposure to ‘eco-tours’, as well as the problems with keeping these amazing creatures in captivity.

There are many issues facing the charismatic marine mammals of the world. Pollutants such as PCB’s and DDT from agriculture, diseases, and intentional hunting for human consumption and the aquarium trade are just a few. Although the local Hawaiian dolphins I was swimming with didn’t have to face being killed, they were at risk of being constantly “hunted” and even harassed by large tour companies. The crew of our boat told how they had witnessed large boat operators corral dolphins by cutting them off (which can lead to injury), and try to wake the dolphins (disrupting their sleeping patterns) to put on a show for their guests. Our boat was different. Even as we dipped in for a swim, we were not allowed to chase the dolphins or approach them. We simply slid into the water, and watched them swim by. It was perfect.

Other “swim with” dolphin experiences often are not careful in approaching or being around the dolphins. We were strictly instructed not chase, follow, or dive down to the dolphins. We simply floated at the surface and observed these beautiful creatures. Other tour operators in the area let their passengers jump in one after another while kicking and splashing going straight for the dolphins. If you were a dolphin, would you stick around? I wouldn’t, and neither do they.

When we entered the water, we didn’t chase them, we didn’t follow them, and we didn’t try to corral them. This was good because they decided to come over and investigate us – a truly perfect moment.

Many tour operations on Oahu’s west side (leaving from both Ko’olina and Wai’anae) will often converge on the same group of spinner dolphins for their guests. This is incredibly unsustainable as the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins actually sleep during the morning and early afternoon hours. The disruption in their sleep causes stress, making them more susceptible to illness, making them unable to hunt effectively at night and avoid predators, etc. etc. Just like humans, dolphins can’t function without enough sleep, and over time that can cause some serious health issues.

Surprisingly enough, some of these boats even carry the Dolphin Smart Certification, a designation founded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to prevent such issues from even arising.  According to NOAA’s dolphin smart policy, vessels should turn off their engines when within 50 yards of the dolphins. NOAA also discourages swimming with the dolphins. While most dolphin smart vessels do not allow ‘swim with’ experiences, they can break or bend the rules in other areas. The regulations insist that you shouldn’t observe a single group of dolphins for more than 30 minutes, yet vessels will sometimes remain for far longer. Many have also been caught encouraging dolphins to break from their sleep period to bow ride. They chase, corral, and surround them – all things that are discouraged under the Dolphin Smart Certification.

Our crew this particular day mentioned that they have tried to reach out to NOAA because of how intensely some of the other tour operators harass the local spinner dolphins. Although, NOAA seems do have done little about this. Now there is talk of making every tour operator in the state required to have a Dolphin Smart Designation. Wild Side Specialty Tours doesn’t feel that’s a great idea.

So if Wild Side is so great why do they refuse to be Dolphin Smart?  Wild Side actually has a very strong anti-captivity stance and part of the Dolphin Smart introduction is “if you want a close encounter, go see captive dolphins.” Dolphin captivity is a really bad idea – read more about that here. Wild Side also believes that by keeping their operations small and only doing one tour a day, they are doing something that other boat tour operations seem to miss – sustainability. By taking fewer people less often they are able to minimize their environmental impact while maximizing their patron’s experiences with the dolphins, and they are able to provide better one on one customer service. People are still able to walk away with an amazing experience swimming with the dolphins without intruding on their time and space for rest.

So if you are heading to Oahu, I highly recommend checking out Wild Side Specialty Tours if you want a sustainable and respectful dolphin experience. If you decide to look for another tour operator, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Smaller is Better – It may seem counter-intuitive, but smaller vessels are actually better for wildlife viewing for one very big reason – noise. The noise that some boat engines can make is incredibly loud. If you’re a dolphin coming into a cove to rest, the last thing you want is to be surrounded by a bunch of big, loud boats.
  • Once is Enough – You really only need a one tour a day operation. Think of it this way, the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins are nocturnal, they rest during the day when most of these dolphin excursions come to visit. Some of the dolphins use this time for socializing, play, and sleep. If you have someone intruding in your space when you’re winding down and then again after you are asleep, it causes significant stress, especially when this happens repeatedly EVERY DAY.
  • No Motor, No Problem – One of the most ecologically responsible ways to view oceanic wildlife is from a kayak. I fell in love with it not too long ago. There are numerous kayak tour companies you can check out all over Oahu. Kayak tours are extra amazing during humpback whale season where you can get an up close and personal encounter from a curious whale.

Overall there are some great options that don’t involve seeing these amazing animals in a small concrete tank. Please be conscious when looking into activities in Hawaii. The less impact we have on our environment and the beautiful creatures in it, the more we can share these amazing experiences with our children and future generations. See you on the ocean!

Feature image above by Jay Ebberly. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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About Lila Jones

Lila Jones
Lila Jones is a marine biologist based on the island of Maui Hawaii. She uses her degree to help promote ocean conservation to the general public as a mermaid. On Maui she teaches visitors how to swim like a mermaid while educating them on current ocean issues threatening the Hawaiian environment. Her research has taken her all over the world including sailing over 3000 nautical miles in the Caribbean and gathering fisheries data for NOAA on the Bering Sea.
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