I’m a frequent visitor to Hawaii – usually at least twice a year, and Kona on the Big Island has always been a favorite spot of mine. On a recent trip, and as I do on every trip there, I set out with a friend to kayak Kealakekua Bay in hopes of spotting and maybe even swimming with wild Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
I love marine mammals. And because of the many experiences I’ve had with wild whales and dolphins in Hawaii, California and Mexico, I have developed a keen appreciation for them in their natural environment. I have disdain for captive dolphin swim programs, and although they serve as a popular attraction for their ease and guarantee of interaction, it’s really at the animals’ expense.
Seeking whales and dolphins in the wild, although unpredictable, has personally been one of my most exciting, rewarding wildlife experiences. And Kealakekua Bay, near the town of Captain Cook, south of Kona on the Big Island, is one of those magical places where you do stand a good chance of interacting.
This particular day was like any other. We tried to set out bright and early, lagged as usual, and after picking up our kayaks from a local vendor, got down to the bay by 10:30 a.m.
There are several choices for renting kayaks in and around Captain Cook – or there are a few local residents who now rent kayaks at the bay. This option saves you the trouble of loading and returning the kayaks with your car, and also helps support the locals. Most people will tell you that very early in the morning is the best time to see the dolphins, but I’ve encountered them at many different times of day here.
It wasn't too long after heading out into the bay in our double kayaks that we spotted a pod of spinner dolphins, who come into the calm, protected bay waters to rest and play. Within minutes I slipped into the clear blue water with my mask, snorkel and fins to survey the situation. Much to my delight, the pod of around 10-15 dolphins was visible below and swimming alongside our kayak. I spent about an hour in the water with this group, playing and cavorting. The group expanded to up to 40 dolphins by combining smaller congregations.
The spinner dolphins are so named for their tendency to jump out of the water and pirouette – which they did repeatedly that day. Sitting and observing the dolphins up close, we watched them play a game of pass with a soggy leaf, a behavior I’ve witnessed before.
The key to enjoying wild dolphins is meeting them on their terms, in their environment. It’s important not to chase, swim after or harass the dolphins.
Looking eye to eye with wild dolphins in Hawaii is described by some as a life-changing experience. I would have to agree. But if you go to Kealakekua Bay and don’t see dolphins, you’ll still have an amazing experience snorkeling the pristine reefs inside the bay and learning about the history of this sacred place.