This is a part of our 9-day Big Island Itinerary.
UPDATE May 22, 2019: The spinner dolphins off the Kona Coast of Hawaii have the highest human exposure rates than anywhere in the world and federal officials work toward finalizing a rule outlawing the practice.
Friday, December 29. I had originally scheduled our swimming with wild dolphins trip for yesterday, but considering that we could arrive to our cottage very late the night before, I contacted our dolphin guide Roberta asking to move it one day later. She obliged, and what a lucky reschedule it was! Our group was the first to encounter a whale shark early in the day and to have a magic rendezvous with the majestic creature all to ourselves!
But let me tell you how it all started. I was doing some research on Hawaii, and reading about the dolphin programs and tours. It was then that I thought our family could spend the coming winter holidays on the Big Island. I contacted a few tours or guides, and one of them referred me to Roberta Goodman, the Dolphin Lady. Roberta went above and beyond helping us schedule our swimming with wild dolphins trip. She also arranged a lunch with an authentically trained Kahuna healer in Volcano for our family (see my Day 3 report). During my Mana cards reading, Kahuna told me that it’s always interesting to see who you meet in the ocean, as the creatures there choose who they want to meet and can even deliver a message. Now I am dreaming that maybe be it wasn’t a sheer coincidence that we swam with the whale shark in Hawaii, maybe it was someone in our group (could it be me?) that this magnificent being came to meet.
We met with Roberta at 8:30am in Honokohau harbor. Three people in our family (my husband, out 17-year old son and myself) and one other lady – just four people in our party. Our crew was 3 people – Roberta, Shelly (another dolphin guide) and Captain Kit. Perfect sunny weather, ample, clean and comfortable boat, knowledgeable and attentive crew – we had everything we needed. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the food. The website says that fruit, snacks, and drinks are provided, but Roberta also brought light lunch for everyone, and it was delicious!
Meeting the Whale Shark in Hawaii
We are out of the harbor and moving fast. Sometimes the captain slows the boat and Roberta points out to whale spouts or dolphins around us. Life is good! Just about 20-30 min of sailing, Captain Kit slowly stops the boat and I hear they talk about whale shark. At that time I haven’t realized how extraordinary that was. I didn’t know that to see a whale shark in Hawaii is a dream of many locals that might not realize in a lifetime. And there we were, first timers – no other boat in the vicinity and the whale shark waiting for us.
Roberta and Shelly talked quietly, telling us to get ready quickly and to move into the water gently. The largest fish on Earth seemed to be waiting for us moving slowly in circles. It was surreal. Shelly gently touched me on the shoulder, and when we surfaced, explained that I need to stay away from the tail, because the fish could hurt me if it moves it fast and wide. Roberta was filming and taking photos.
I am repeating myself, but swimming with a whale shark in Hawaii is an extremely rare occurrence. It was the first encounter for Shelly in her 15+ years in the ocean, 3rd or 4th time for Roberta, and 2nd time for Captain Kit. In the article, listing the best locations to swim with whale sharks by month, Hawaii is never mentioned!
We spent at least 30 minutes with the giant fish, before other boats came over and shouting people started pouring down into the water. But the whale shark didn’t seem to be disturbed by all that hullabaloo and continued her show well into the afternoon. When we came back to shore after visiting dolphins, our captain greeted a man who was ready to load his boat on the trailer. After the man heard that we saw a whale shark, he started to moan, pulling his hair, saying that he’d been dreaming of it for so many years! He asked where the shark was and started to reverse things preparing to go back into the ocean in hope to see the shark.
Swimming with Wild Dolphins
On the way to the dolphin location, Roberta told us a lot about the dolphins. We swam for another hour or more, watching beautiful spinner dolphins swim, jump, swim on the back. I even saw one pooping and then happily shaking off.
About Hawaiian Dolphins
There are a few species of dolphins in Hawaii, but only two of them are regularly seen near the shore – Bottlenose and Spinner dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are much larger than Spinners, and they travel in smaller groups of 2-10. The ratio of their brain mass to their overall body mass is second to humans, so the Bottlenose dolphins are often considered the most intelligent animals on Earth.
But it’s to swim with the smaller Hawaiian Spinner dolphins (Nai’a in Hawaiian) that numerous tour operators and dolphin guides take tourists out every day. It’s those playful and curious dolphins that can leap out of the water and spin in the air sometimes 5-6 times around in one jump. They are usually seen in groups of 50-600, but large pods can split into smaller groups. Those smaller groups swim in formation, often touching each other; they dive, turn and rise together.
Spinner dolphins are nocturnal, they hunt at night in deeper waters. Each morning they return to the shallow waters to rest. On their way from feeding to resting areas, the Spinner dolphins play and frolic, leap and spin, and this is the best time time to observe them. The coast of Kona on the Big Island is one of the best places in the world to enjoy swimming with the wild dolphins. The dolphins can be found here 98-99% of the days.
Is Swimming with Wild Dolphins Illegal?
Being in the water with the dolphins, swimming around them is not prohibited. It’s harassing of all marine mammals, including dolphins, that’s prohibited by Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. It’s important to try to observe dolphins on their way from feeding to resting areas and avoid swimming around them while they sleep. Responsible dolphin guides teach visitors about dolphin behaviors and instruct how to observe them without disturbing.
How Do Dolphins Sleep?
As all mammals, dolphins breathe air. But unlike humans they breath consciously. Living under water and having to come to the surface every 2-5 minutes is a tough combination for achieving a deep sleep state. The dolphin solution is uni-hemispheric sleep – to rest one half of their brain at a time. This way they are always half-awake and half asleep during their restful period, which lasts around 8 hours. They can either slowly and rhythmically submerge and then rise to breathe, or rest partly under water with their blowhole in the air.
Is it Expensive to Hire a Private Guide?
In our experience, it’s worth every penny and more! Seeing other crowded boats made me feel really happy that we chose to go with Roberta and her crew. Besides, the cost of just one dolphin experience ticket for our son at Hilton Waikoloa was more than half of what we paid for this trip for all three of us. And Roberta’s photos were free, while the Dolphin Quest charges over $50 per photo!
Previous: Day 4 – Waialea Beach, a.k.a. Beach 69
Next: Day 6 – Kohala Waterfalls Adventure with Hawaii Forest & Trail
and Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea[coming soon]
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Related: Whale Watching in Hawaii