Amateur divers take swim on wild side with Oahu dolphin tour

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MAKAHA, Hawaii -- We set sail for the calmer waters just beyond those that create the famed surfing break known as Makaha.

My goal, and that of the dozen others aboard a catamaran off western Oahu, was to swim with dolphins; not trained dolphins found at aquariums and the like, but feral ones, out in the wild. 

Now, Im a fairly avid adventurer. I grew up skiing and road biking and have hiked the Appalachian Trail, surfed all over four of Hawaiis islands and hiked and camped in the deserts of Arizona, the lush forests of Oregon and the mountains of Colorado. Ive even slept in the occasional snow cave carved out of a mountainside or on rock walls a few hundred feet above a canyon.

But what I was about to experience on that warm Oahu summer morning, with my girlfriend, Abby, was unlike anything I had encountered before.

Dive in with dolphins

Theres a protocol for swimming alongside a pod of dolphins in the open ocean, but there were no trainers at sea with us.

In fact, our crew never left the catamaran deck, with the exception of one guide who dove into the water on our last stop to snap some photos of sea turtles.

Our guide did instruct us on how to act if we found ourselves within mere feet of a wild dolphin in open ocean.

Swim alongside them and with them, not at them, she said. If we stopped, she cautioned, they would swim by. If we swam with them, they might stay and play.

The lecture ended with the caveat that there was no guarantee we would be able to swim with the intelligent mammals, nor were we assured of even seeing one that day.

(However, Wild Side Specialty Tours does guarantee a dolphin sighting. If clients do not spot one on the half-day sail, they are invited to return on another sail at no charge.)

Luckily, within a few seconds of her disclaimer, three dorsal fins emerged in unison from the waves, not 20 feet from our boat.

We rushed over to see them, only to learn that it was a whole pod of dolphins, perhaps 20 in all, and they were on both sides of the boat.

The boat slowed and eventually stopped. We were told to put on our snorkeling gear and flotation vests and to prepare to swim.  

A ladder was lowered from the center rear of the catamaran, and we began walking the plank into the water. When all 13 of us were in the water, we swam in different directions.

By that time, the pod was out of sight, either underwater or completely gone. The captain waved for us to swim inland, as hed spotted the pod heading in that direction.

Marine mimics

Finding ourselves somehow separated from the rest of the group, Abby and I followed his lead, swimming in the open ocean, looking at the patterns the waves made in the soft sand below. A few crabs crawled on the ocean floor, and a school of clownfish swam by.

Enjoying ourselves, wed almost forgotten what we were there to do.

I popped up to the surface for a moment when a pair of fins headed right at me. Sliding the mask back over my face, I slipped underwater, grabbed Abbys hand and spun her around.

A pair of Hawaiian spinner dolphins were swimming right at us. We froze. When the duo got within six feet, they veered to the right and turned to look directly at us as they passed, as if beckoning us to follow. Still holding hands, we turned and kicked, free arms extended, and swam for what felt like days alongside the dolphins.

At one point, Abby -- an experienced swimmer and diver -- let go of my hand and dove underneath me, swimming upside-down so she could look up at me from a few feet lower.

Almost instantly, one dolphin inverted itself, swimming below its partner in the same way. They were mimicking us.

Wild Side Specialty Tours wild dolphin encounter sailings depart from Oahus Waianae Boat Harbor, slip A-11. The tours last approximately four hours and are priced at $95 per person, including a light breakfast and use of a snorkeling mask and fins. Call (808) 306-7273, visit www.sailhawaii.com or e-mail [email protected].

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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