5 epic places to swim with dolphins in the wild

Graceful, curious and highly intelligent, dolphins are pretty awesome animals. No wonder swimming alongside one is right up there on many people’s travel bucket lists. Thanks in no small part to the worldwide success of Blackfish (if you haven’t seen this brilliant documentary, you can stream it for free on the official website), the issues involved with keeping cetaceans in captivity for the purpose of human entertainment are now on a lot more travellers’ radars. Even so, the multimillion-dollar captive dolphin swim industry continues to thrive everywhere from the US to China, Cuba to Portugal, with many holidaymakers unable to resist the lure of this ‘experience of a lifetime’.

Truth is, that it’s a million times more fun to swim with these beautiful creatures in the wild. Part of the thrill is the part luck plays in the experience. Unfortunately, the ‘but this is the best chance I’ll ever get’ mentality is one of the most common reasons people indulge in captive dolphin interactions. But a captive dolphin swim is not up to chance at all. Animal welfare experts claim that keeping dolphins in captivity is not only unnatural, but inhumane in denying them the ability to behave naturally. Is that selfie of a captive dolphin kissing you on the cheek really worth it when you consider that it did not do it of its own free will?

Swimming with dolphins in the wild, however, is not without its issues, which range from operators crowding dolphin pods, to swimmers behaving irresponsibly. If you’d love the chance to swim with a dolphin in its natural habitat without risking the welfare of the dolphins, read on for five great spots where it’s possible.

Byron Bay's bottlenosed dolphins are a playful lot © Sarah Reid
Byron Bay’s bottlenose dolphins are a playful lot © Sarah Reid

Byron Bay, Australia

There are lots of great places to swim with wild dolphins in Australia – from Port Philip Bay in Victoria to Rockingham in Western Australia – but Byron Bay in New South Wales is a great DIY option if you’re not keen on organised tours. There are thought to be around 300 residential bottlenose dolphins in the Byron Bay area, and they can be very playful – often coming within metres of swimmers and surfers. Being in the right place at the right time requires an element of luck, but you’ll have the best chances at Wategoes Beach, a popular dolphin hang-out where the cetaceans typically swim close to shore and frolic in the waves alongside surfers.

Another near-guaranteed way to see local dolphins is to sign up for a kayaking tour with Cape Byron Kayaks or Go Sea Kayak. These tours don’t include swimming, but the probability of seeing dolphins up close is so high that both companies will let you join another tour free if you don’t spot any during a two-hour paddle around Cape Byron Marine Park. Turtles are usually spotted as well as dolphins, and between June and November, you have a good chance of spotting humpback whales, too.

This traveller did a slightly better job at photographing Bolivia's pink dolphins than I managed to. Image by ManMan
This traveller did a slightly better job at photographing Bolivia’s pink dolphins than I managed to. Image by ManMan / flickr

Amazon River, Bolivia

Swim in the Amazon? Yep. In the Amazon’s north-western tributaries, the piranhas don’t typically go for humans. So, as long as there are no caiman lurking around, you can (almost) safely slip out of a long-tail boat to frolic with the curious pink bufeo (river dolphins) that ply these waters. This is one of the highlights of the popular multi-day trips that run from the Bolivian Amazon gateway village of Rurrenabaque (it’s also possible to swim with pink dolphins on tours operated out of Manaus in Peru). Wildly popular with the backpacker crowd, most tours follow a two-night, three-day itinerary including spotting caiman, searching for anacondas, and fishing for piranhas (which are surprisingly good eating).

Unfortunately, tourism still goes largely unregulated here. Many operators clearly measure their success in terms of how many animal encounters they can provide guests, so the unsustainable practice of feeding of wild caiman (not to mention passing around anacondas for selfies), is common. Look for agencies certified by Rurrenabarque’s Green Action Alliance, such as Indigena Tours. Pink dolphins are generally quite inquisitive and will come and check you out of their own accord; attracting them with fish or other treats is discouraged.

Dolphins are typically seen in large numbers in the Azores. Image by Tim Ellis / flickr
Dolphins are typically seen in large numbers in the Azores. Image by Tim Ellis / flickr 

Azores Archipelago, Portugal

Referred to as the ‘cetacean crossroads of the world’, the Azores has the biggest variety of dolphin of any area worldwide. It’s possible to spot eight different species around this nine-island archipelago, which are sometimes spotted in ‘super pods’ of over 1000 individuals that come close to the shores of the islands to take advantage of the plentiful food supply. Pico Island is considered one of the most beautiful of the Azorean islands, and it is in this remote location that some of the best dolphin swimming sessions can be experienced.

If you sign up for a swimming tour, you can expect to swim with common or bottlenose dolphins.

The Azores is a world leader in sustainable tourism, but some dolphin swimming operators are better than others. Do your research: keep an eye out for World Cetacean Alliane Partners such as The Dolphin & Whale Connection, which offers a range of dolphin swimming and whale-watching package tours. During the northern hemisphere spring, you’ll have the best chances of seeing fin whales, blue whales and sei whales, too.

The dolphins of Kaikōura are known for their acrobatics. Image by Tom Coates / flickr
The dolphins of Kaikōura are known for their acrobatics. Image by Tom Coates / flickr

Kaikōura, New Zealand

Located on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Kaikōura is home to large pods of dusky dolphins which are renowned for their acrobatic tendencies and interactive behaviour.

The abundance of marine life in the region is thanks to the Kaikōura Canyon, a submarine trench just 800m from the coast. As cold water moves along the base of the trench (which reaches depths of over 1200m) towards the coast, it begins to rise, bringing with it nutrients from the ocean’s depths. The nutrients encourage a food chain, which goes all the way up to the sperm whales you may also spot from dolphin-watching boats. Local operator Encounter Kaikōura has earned an excellent reputation for its ‘dolphin encounter’ tours that run year-round, up to three times daily.

It's possible to get quite close to the dolphins in Kona, Hawaii. Image by Klaus Steifel / flickr
It’s possible to get quite close to the dolphins in Kona, Hawaii. Image by Klaus Steifel / flickr

Kona, Hawaii

It’s possible to swim with wild dolphins all over Hawaii, but one of the best spots is Kona, on the west side of the Big Island. With well over 1,000 individuals populating the Kona cost, Hawaiian spinner dolphins – so-called for their acrobatic displays in which the dolphins spin along their longitudinal axis as they leaps through the air – typically make the best swimming companions. Tours are conducted in the Red Hill marine sanctuary, and there are plenty of operators to choose from.

Unfortunately, the volume of operators in the area have raised concerns that the local dolphin population doesn’t get enough downtime, and at the time of writing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was preparing to propose stricter protection measures. If you do decide to swim here, look for operators that support the NOAA (such as Body Glove Hawaii, which advocates Dolphin SMART practices).

Thanks to Cape Byron Kayaks for having me on one of your tours.