There are no promises that they’ll come close. Dolphins are wild mammals after all, and the open sea is their home. To swim with them is an unforgettable experience and more than one snorkeler or scuba diver has spoken about weeping into their mask in heartfelt gratitude when dolphins choose to come close in the wild. They are naturally curious and unless you threaten them, they may come close to check you out.
So, where around the world can you swim with dolphins in the wild?
One of the most popular spots to observe and snorkel with dolphins is along the Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Spinner dolphins run up and down a stretch of coastline near the airport in the evenings as they go into sleep mode and then move into deeper waters to rest.
How dolphins and many other cetaceans -- the order of aquatic mammals they belong to -- sleep is very different than humans. Dolphins need to breathe and keep an eye out on their environment for threats. They’ve evolved the ability to shut one half of their brain down while keeping the opposite side eye “on,” even as they dip into deep sleep mode. The Kona coast dolphins begin to slow down as they go to sleep, and this is prime time to watch them or snorkel near.
There are many boat charters that take advantage of this process and the captains cooperate, calling each other to report where the dolphins are. The fastest of the boats cut away from the coast swiftly and then move into position well ahead of the oncoming dolphins and wait. Only a few swimmers are allowed into the water at a time to paddle away from the boat looking for movement. Once the dolphins pass, you swim back to the boat and get out of the water for the next run. It makes for an exhilarating -- and exhausting -- experience.
Of course, there are alternatives to this workout. Book a trip on a dolphin catamaran cruise or sail with an outfit experienced enough to know where to go and when. Another option is to visit Two Steps Beach about 12 miles outside of Kona. When the sea is calm and if you go early enough, wildlife is plentiful. The bay will be full of colorful tang, butterfly fish, and sea turtles. Seals and dolphins often rest in the deepest part of the bay. Strong swimmers may get close but are warned not to interact with them. The State of Hawaii has strict laws protecting wildlife from interference.
This southern coastline is blessed with wild dolphin encounters, but the country's largest Bottlenose dolphin population resides near Panama City Beach and in St. Andrew’s Bay.
The bay is a fragile ecosystem with minimal tides and a low influx of fresh water, so much depends on the managing of tourism to maintain a healthy bay environment and wild dolphin population. Tour operators like Captain Anderson’s Marina offer sunset cruises through the historic channel into St. Andrew’s Bay, where dolphins play as the night approaches.
There are multiple opportunities for getting up close and personal with dolphins around the hundreds of islands that comprise the Bahamas. The Wild Dolphin Project has been featured in National Geographic Magazine for its research, education, and conservation work. Founder and research director Dr. Denise Herzing has studied generations of wild Atlantic and Bottlenose dolphins each summer season since 1985, and the public is welcome to join Wild Dolphin Project’s research crews on 10-day trips that operate between Florida and the Bahamas via catamaran. There are five trips scheduled between May and September. Advanced registration is required.
Wild Dolphin Adventures hosted by Bimini Undersea in Bimini, Bahamas, offers a shorter-term option. Guests are brought out to the Bimini’s Wild Dolphin grounds to view, swim, and possibly interact with resident Atlantic Spotted and Bottlenose Dolphins. Each cruise has on-board researchers to offer insights and answer questions, and the excursions are suited for people of all ages (including children) and skill levels.
Further south, Dolphin Bay, Panama, is home to Bottlenose dolphin families. The dolphins are drawn into the bay to feed on jellyfish, however, boat cruises in the area are associated with overtourism, and not all captains are respectful of the wildlife.
Research local groups like Kawi Voyage, which practices ecotourism and employs locals who facilitate respectful wildlife encounters. If you travel to Panama, you can also avoid the boats altogether and ask locals about on-shore locations from which you can observe dolphins playing in the evenings.
The elusive and rare pink river dolphins are found in the Amazon River regions of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, and Guyana. The young dolphins are grey and turn pink as they mature; growing up to nine feet long. Unlike ocean dolphins, they are more solitary and stay in pods of four to five animals. They rarely jump like other dolphins, but can be observed swimming upside down, perhaps to better observe the river life below.
Intelligent and curious, pink river dolphins may come close to observers and encounters are best experienced with tour operators. One ecotour operator in the Kapawari River, Gondwana Ecotours, is committed to preserving the dolphins and supporting local communities.
Interact with Bottlenose dolphins at the Halo Gaia program in Ponta Do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve on the so-called Dolphin Coast of Mozambique. The program has been working to create conscious, educational, and respectful dolphin encounters since 1999.
Halo Gaia offers wellness retreats and adventure travel as well. Over the years, Halo’s founder, Courtney Ward, has established relationships with local guides who help visitors respectfully observe the dolphins’ sentient nature. Halo hosts women’s retreats and family holiday packages and lets its guests choose from accommodations that range from rustic campsites to luxury villas.
Winner of many international awards and eco certifications, Dolphin Swim Australia operates out of the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park. Sunrise tours head out to the open ocean where you’ll observe and swim near pods of playful dolphins.
Imagine wearing a mask and snorkel while holding onto a line stretched between the bows of a large, moving catamaran. Dolphins around the world have been observed bow-riding in the curling waters off ships, and this behavior led to the Dolphin Swim process. Swimmers watch dolphins racing from the water and dolphins often come close. No harm is done to either species!
Built on the coasts of Moreton Island, the Tangalooma Marine Education and Conservation Centre runs dolphin tours and supervises daily dolphin feeding sessions off the protected beach. The area's Tangalooma Island Resort has a long history with the wild dolphins, too. The Osborne family visited Tangalooma in the 1970s and observed dolphins approaching the resort jetty at night as the lights attracted bait fish into shallow waters.
The family purchased the resort in 1980 and began identifying dolphins who returned to the jetty to feed with their young in tow. Resort guests fishing from the jetty began throwing their rejected fish to the approaching dolphins. By 1991, the resort started leaving a bucket of fresh fish on the jetty for guests to cast out to waiting dolphins. Today the tradition continues with two generations of dolphins returning nightly. The area is protected from boat traffic under the Marine Parks Act of 2004.
Tahiti’s Rangaroa atoll has much to offer scuba divers, with giant schools of fish and sea creatures such as manta rays, Napoleon fish, and hammerhead sharks. The 30 to 40 Bottlenose dolphins living in Tiputa Pass find rich plankton to feed on and often swim with scuba divers. You don’t even have to get wet to enjoy them jumping in and out of the waves.
Hotel Kia Ora has a complimentary shuttle service to the pass three times each week. It delivers visitors at 5 p.m. -- prime time for the spectacle. Snorkelers with Yestahiti Tours Eco Dolphin Watch excursion have the opportunity to drift close to bottlenose dolphins and friendly turtles, too.
Dolphins can be seen in many coastal areas around the world. They may suddenly appear racing in a boat’s wake, jumping out of the water, or playing in the waves at sunset. Wherever you go, there are no guarantees that the wild animals will appear, but picking the right spot, going out with reputable tour and boat operators in established marine protected areas, and exercising patience can make your dream of swimming with wild dolphins come true.