Hawaii Honeymoon Part 3: Swimming with Spinners

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After 2 jam-packed days on Oahu, we decided to take day 3 of our honeymoon as our official, much needed R&R day. We spent the morning on the beach, the afternoon in the spa, and the evening in the all-you-can eat buffet. It was all heavenly but ultimately… uninteresting to write about. I’ll leave it at this: the facilities at Aulani are truly first class. We were so happy to base our stay there and would HIGHLY recommend any adult doing the same to check out the spa – which features access to a private garden and many different soaking pools that are worth a visit all on their own.

By day 4 however, we were ready to move again.

After getting my PADI open water certification in Bali, I was really wanting to try out scuba diving in Hawaii. But scuba is an expensive sport, and Tom and I found our bank accounts couldn’t handle the hit. So we started searching TripAdvisor for alternatives.

Aulani is beautiful, but booking excursions through the resort was expensive and limited our choice in operators. Because we had rented a car, we had the freedom to meet guides off the property. This allowed us to find Wild Side Specialty Tours. We booked a Deluxe Wildlife Charter with them, which promised an afternoon on the water with a small group, looking for whales, sea turtles, and – if we were lucky – a swim with wild dolphins.

I am very weary of any operation promoting contact with animals at all – be it in a pool or in the wild. I try to be careful to use the little consumer power I have to support ethical practices. So I wasn’t sure about this wild dolphin swim. But Wild Side talked a lot on their website about sustainability and education. They state very explicitly how important it is to them not to influence the natural behavior of wild animals, and how touching and feeding of wildlife was not allowed on their tours. They also donate a percentage of the proceeds from the tours they run to support the Wild Dolphin Foundation. Finally, Wild Side’s guides are true naturalists and marine biologists with experience and educations in their fields. They weren’t the cheapest tours running on Oahu, but they came with many high reviews and the Park Ranger in me was satisfied that they were an ethical choice.

So off we went in our small group, sunning ourselves on the catamaran and keeping an eye out for fins.

 

We saw the whales first. Giant humpbacks breaching in the distance. Our guide was able to put a microphone in the water so that we could hear their calls. The sea turtles were everywhere too, their shadows appearing and disappearing in the waves more times then we could count. But we didn’t stop for either. Another boat had reported a pod of spinner dolphins ahead, but they were heading towards waters too dangerous for our catamaran. This would be our only chance to swim with the dolphins. There was no time to linger.

For an hour we chased them. Every now and then someone would yell out that they thought they saw a fin. But it wasn’t so. It was always a bird, or a wave, or a bit of something else floating in the sea. We started to think we weren’t going to get in the water that day. And it was so beautiful that we didn’t really care. We’d seen a dozen humpback whales by that point. The sun was out and the mountains were beautiful.

Our guide brought out a book while we waited. She told us how the spinner dolphins we were after today were actually nocturnal. They hunt at night, and then return to the shallower waters around the islands during the day to rest. They come here because the sandy sea bottom allows them to visually detect the approach of a predator easier than in the deeper waters. They move in tight pods so that they can sleep, but they never actually go totally unconscious. Spinner dolphins rest just certain parts of their brains at a time. They synchronize their breathing. They work together, keeping an eye on their side of the pod so that the entire group is protected. They do not use their sonar, which is why those sandy sea floors become important – without sound they must rely heavily on sight. So if we did get to see dolphins today, they would effectively be asleep.

It happened fast. One minute the waters seemed empty, the next we were surrounded. Dozens of dolphins everywhere. Our guide instructed us to quickly get our gear. She had told us earlier we’d have to make a quick move into the water if we wanted to catch them. We weren’t a big group, but there was only one ladder, so everyone needed to move quickly to get us all in. We were not allowed to jump, as the splashing might scare the dolphins away.

There was one child in our group, and I’m sure the guide meant well when she instructed the little girl to come right behind her. My teacher-senses immediately assessed this as a bad idea, however. I think the guide thought the girl would feel safer near her, but it also put the child in the position of having to get into the water – which was open ocean mind you – really, really fast and with a long line of strange adults behind her. She said she was okay, but I could see her anxiety starting to rise as we prepped to go in, and by the time that she got to the bottom of the ladder she had a total meltdown and refused to go any further. We all had to back up so that she could return. I was impressed how patient everyone was with her. No one was rude or anything but supportive. But we were all disappointed to be losing time in the water, and by the time we did get in, the dolphins were gone.

Oh well, you can’t control everything. I have the unique experience to know better than most that 1 – you can never guarantee a wildlife sighting, and 2 – sometimes the behavior of children can be difficult if not impossible to anticipate.

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We got back on the boat. We thought we were done for the day.

But 10 minutes later, and the pod had circled back around. Our group was ready this time. We scrambled into the water as fast as we could – some of us more graceful than others. It was a bit disorienting at first – seeing the fins above the water and then placing the face of your mask in the sea to see the view below. The perspective changed so massively. The ocean was crystal clear and the bottom so smooth – it seemed close, but actually it was very, very deep. While the masks gave us a clear view into the water, they also restrict your vision quite a bit. Bringing my head above the surface I saw a few fins ahead, but finding them again underwater was tricky. They moved so fast that by the time you think you have them spotted they were somewhere else entirely. Finally they came right ahead and just underneath us. Our guide estimated there were 40-60 of them. While they moved fast they did have a serene look about them. I became overwhelmed by the feeling that I was watching a movie through the goggles, that this scene couldn’t be real. And then they were gone again, and I felt totally exhilarated.

We received the instruction to start swimming back to the boat. Tom and I had unintentionally swam out the furthest of the group, so we were some of the last to get to the ladder. I had one foot on the bottom rung when the dolphins surprised all of us by returning again.

This time they were right underneath us, and all around us. We were able to share the water with them for another five minutes or so. It doesn’t seem like long when you say it like that, but in this strange world on the surface, riding the line between above and under, having no clue if the seafloor was 20 or 200 feet below, if the dolphins were here or there… in this in-between world of warped perspectives – 5 minutes felt like an hour.

In the midst of all of this, I felt my stomach starting to unsettle. It was a windy day, and even though we were far from shore the sea was moving quite a bit. I wasn’t going to leave those dolphins though, and again I was one of the last to get out of the water. Once on the boat the sickness began to get more intense, and our guide brought over some essential oils to rub behind my ears. The captain began to steer the boat back along the coastline where we had come. I have a strong sense of smell and the oils wound up having the opposite of their intended effect on me. Lunch was being served to the rest of the group. I moved myself away from the food and asked for a ginger ale.

Two humpbacks – a mother and her calf – appeared in front of us. And I mean RIGHT in front of us. Everyone ran to the front of the catamaran, but as the boat slowed to watch, the motion of the waves grew bigger… and I knew I wasn’t going to make it back to shore with the grace I had hoped. I took my chance to save my pride and ran to the back of the boat, now empty as the others awed at the giants swimming mere feet in front of their eyes at this point. Mercifully, the contents of my belly emptied quickly over the side. Ever the comedian, my conscious pointed out that this was way better than hugging a toilet. Still leaning over the edge, I watched my breakfast begin to float away… only to notice something very large appear below. The calf broke through the surface of the water just in front of me. The pair had swam under the boat and were now an arm’s length away. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Of course we don’t have photo evidence of any of this. We somehow managed to lose our camera in the wedding prep madness so all we had this entire trip was our cellphones. As they were not waterproof, they were stored safely in a drybag for most of this afternoon. It’s a disappointment for us too, not to have any photos. At the same time it makes it more important that I write this long, photo-less post.

“When we’re old and I’m senile and you’re changing my diaper,” I told Tom as we got back into the car, “don’t let me forget about the time I swam with dolphins and puked on a humpback whale in the same day.”

He promised he wouldn’t.

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3 thoughts on “Hawaii Honeymoon Part 3: Swimming with Spinners

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