I used to think that the only way I was really going to swim with dolphins was when I paid the big bucks, to have a resort worker hold my hand, and grab the dorsal fin of an unhappy "Flipper" in captivity. Sadly, most whales and dolphins in captivity have a life span of around 10 years as compared to around 80 years in the wild.
I was out surfing one day in Newport Beach, CA and suddenly I found myself surrounded by dolphins in the wild. Keep in mind; these were not the big, fat, lazy ones you see at Sea World. These were lean, mean, swimming machines. I jumped off my surfboard and underwater I could hear them clicking away in a symphony of communication unlike anything I'd ever hear. I was thinking they must certainly be talking about the surfer that was awkwardly trying to swim with them.
I opened up my eyes underwater. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way, albeit common sense should have prevailed, but this was a momentous occasion not to be missed, that if you wear contacts, you will not for long opening your eyes underwater. I also realized that after such long exposure even being an avid surfer the bottom line is that saltwater will burn your eyes a bit more than chlorine.
I took from the experience some of the "does and don'ts" of swimming with wild dolphins and how you can make it happen for you at your local beach almost every time you go during the season.
1. Go in the morning. I usually always see dolphins from 8 am-10am in the morning (Check your local surf and weather bureau for tides and weather as well) and they are usually swimming up the beach or down the beach. You can still catch an afternoon stray or two if you are lucky. It is in the morning I see them most often. I suppose thinking like a dolphin I would venture to guess that they want to stay away from the crowds? Although most likely it is the tide and their nature so I am just grateful to have a timeline.
2. Sit on a high part of the beach. Do not sit down by the water's edge; you will not be able to see too far out in the ocean. Also, if there is surf you will not be able to see over the tops of the waves.
3. Bring binoculars. Just keep scanning the ocean and if you think you see a disturbance, grab your binoculars and take a closer look. You may get lucky and spot whales, sharks, sunfish, and turtles.
4. Bring a long board, paddleboard, or kayak. Dolphins, if they are swimming up or down the beach, they make it look like they are barely trying, but they are covering a lot of distance, more then you can cover swimming alone and even with flippers. They have millions of years of evolution and just plain practice not to mention a built in "engine" at their advantage and man has tools, so use them wisely!
5. Bring a mask and snorkel, throw it around your neck or put it in your kayak, (if that's your choice of transport). If you want to have the experience of a life time and hear dolphins clicking underwater and seeing them when the ocean is clear, you will not miss them even slightly cloudy, than this is essential.
6. Do not forget your underwater camera! I made this unfortunate mistake one day as I watched humpback whales breaking off the beach for hours on end without an underwater camera or paddle board to bring me closer. It was a spectacle that will stay with me for the rest of my life time but I can only imagine how much more magical it would have been to be in the water closer to them and have those pictures. Do not forget fresh batteries for your camera! I have made this mistake as well trying to capture a magic "Kodak" moment only to have the camera die. Underwater digital cameras go through batteries quickly. I've tried all different types, most success so far is from using lithium batteries, but they all seem to go whenever they want even if the screen indicates nearly a full charge. Research current cameras and shop around!
7. Remain observant! These are dolphins in their natural habitat. I've been surfing in Newport Beach, CA having dolphins zip through the waves just as I was about to duck dive through them. I've had dolphins jump out of the back of waves and near land on me while I'm paddling back out to the lineup. I've had dolphins bump me as I've sat on my surfboard waiting for waves. Remember they are very intelligent and are not easy prey even to the everyday man's natural "fear" of the sea, THE SHARK. Perhaps I was in their way and they did not feel like moving, or that I was an "unknown" in their territory and giving me a heel yet very clear hint to move. Remember to stay observant and never forget that you are swimming with wild dolphins that have not been trained to come to us for food and they will do whatever dolphins like to do while you are with them, follow their lead! Keep in your mind, if dolphins are in an area for a while feeding, more than likely other large predators are in the area feeding as well. Do not go rushing out after every fin you see in the ocean! As I say this I will share an inconvenient incident about a lady in Maui off Kaanapali at Turtle's Cove. She thought that naturally being in Hawaii and seeing fins she was swimming out to see dolphins and in her excitement and lack of thought about what could be out there with fins as well it turned out a very hungry Tiger Shark was looking for turtles to eat. Instead the Tiger Shark found he was most fortunate when a tasty morsel swam right up to it!
Keep your wits, keep your money, and keep your eyes peeled. Because your adventure of your lifetime will be swimming off your favorite beach all summer or even winter long depending on where you live!