Ask any 10 divers to list their top 10 dive fantasies, and Im willing
to bet that diving with
dolphins will show up on most of those lists. Years ago, diving with dolphins
was a rare and treasured experience awarded only to those who spent a
lot of time in the ocean and managed to get lucky. Today, just about anyone
can experience diving with dolphins. Many people find these dives the
most memorable of their lives.
seem to love Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPVs). For Dolphins,
the faster the game, the better.
Dolphin experiences can be broken down into three categories: wild, captive
and semi-captive (see sidebars). There are many places around the world
where people can interact with dolphins, but the Caribbean probably has
the most diverse and developed dolphin experiences overall. My first experience
with dolphins was aboard the 65-foot live-aboard Dream Too in the Bahamas.
Captain Wayne Scott Smith has been diving with, photographing
and cataloging wild Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis) at Little Bahama
Bank for 20 years, while leading trips to visit the playful cetaceans.
Scott considers these dolphins his friends, and he has a cataloged more
than 125 regulars of the area.
I boarded the boat on a Sunday afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, and we set
out after dinner for the Bahamas. When I woke up the next morning, we
were docked in Grand Bahama and cleared by customs. Within an hour, we
were on our way out to Little Bahama Bank to search for dolphins.
Several hours later, five dolphins converged on the boat and leapt into
the bow wave. We couldnt wait to get into the water with them.
The key to good wild dolphin encounters is to have fun. The dolphins like
to play. If you play, they enjoy it and play as well. If you concentrate
too much on photography, the dolphins know you arent playing, and
they will go play with someone else. They also like to swim fast. For
that reason, most wild dolphin experiences are done with just a snorkel.
Scuba gear slows us down too much.
With that in mind, I jumped off of the back of the boat and swam hard,
hoping to catch a glimpse of a dolphin underwater. There, in the blue
Bahamian waters, approaching at what seemed like Mach 2.1, appeared a
sleek Spotted Dolphin. I watched in amazement as the living torpedo approached,
looked into my eyes and watched me carefully as it circled. It blinked.
Its eyes looked very human to me, and it was clearly sizing me up.
Dolphin at Anthonys Key Resort, Roatan, Bay Islands.
I took a breath and down I went, holding my breath like a dolphin would,
and the whole time the dolphin never left my side. I swam fast, to keep
it interested. As I headed back up, my face turning blue from lack of
oxygen and fighting an overwhelming desire to breathe, the dolphin veered
off toward someone else. I surfaced and gasped. For an hour, dolphins
swirled around divers. It seemed the goofier we looked underwater, the
more the dolphins clicked, whistled and enjoyed themselves. We all tried
various underwater rolls, headstands, bubble-blowing and noisemaking.
It kept the dolphins interested, but try taking decent pictures while
you are flailing upside down and singing Under the Sea into
your snorkelits tough.
Every once in a while the dolphins would get a little bored and start
wandering off while we all caught our breath. Thats when one of
the crew members would grab his DPV (Diver Propulsion Vehicle) and start
doing circles. One thing for sure, dolphins cant resist the DPV!
It brought them streaking back many times. For a whole week, we did this
aerobic workout every day.
dolphin interactions combine the best of both worldsa sure encounter
and an open ocean dive. The dolphins literally follow the boat out
to the dive site, interact with the divers, then follow the boat back.
The fact that they dont swim away is an indication that these
animals enjoy their special treatment of being fed regularly, yet
getting to go out every day to play.
Unexso on Grand Bahama is known for the quality of its program, the
friendliness of its Bottlenose Dolphins, and the opportunity for divers
and nondivers of all ages to interact, and even caress or hitch a
ride, with these special creatures. Participants can experience the
dive on snorkel or scuba.
(off Grand Bahama) program, utilizing semi-captive dolphins,
is a sure thing for up-close and personal encounters.
If this encounter seems like a lot of work, there is an easier way to
do it. On a trip to Roatan, I stopped in for a few days at Anthonys
Key Resort, home of the Institute for Marine Sciences. This is a semi-captive
environment, where trained Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) followed
the dive boat out to a nearby reef. On the sandy ocean floor, the divers
gathered around in a loose group, and the dolphins swam up to interact.
Everyone got to see a dolphin underwater, but the dolphins decided how
much they wanted to interact. They acted very much like dogs let off their
leashexcited, hyper and looking to play. Often, one of the dolphins
would find someone they liked and stayed around that person for quite
a while. If you were the lucky one, you could expect an incredible experience!
But generally everyone got plenty of opportunities to see and photograph
dolphin encounters are usually the most exciting and pulse-quickening,
since any interaction with the animals is at their discretion. Somehow,
having a wild animal choose to interact with me is a wonderful notion.
Maybe the dolphin thinks Im interesting (or perhaps just funny
looking). But wild dolphins do not always cooperate. There is no such
thing as a sure thing when it comes to diving with wild
dolphins, although many operators in the Bahamas and Bimini come close.
Anthonys Key Resort is not the only place to find semi-captive dolphin
experiences. Other places, most notably Unexso in Grand Bahama, offer
Another excellent captive dolphin experience Ive seen is the Dolphin
Discovery in Chankanaab National Marine Park on Cozumel. This relatively
new facility has half a dozen Bottlenose Dolphins that live in an enormous
ocean pen. The depth is about 35 feet deep, and the dolphins have lots
of room to swim around at full speed and interact with each other. Because
the dolphins are in a captive environment, Dolphin Discovery can offer
programs for diving with the dolphins, but also simpler things for young
children, like patting a dolphin, swimming with the dolphins and yes,
even learning how to ride them. OK, Ill admit it. I went through
the program where you learn to ride on the dorsal fins of two dolphins,
and its a heck of a lot of fun. My wife loved it, too. We even bought
the souvenir pictures they sell in the gift shop afterward. On our dive
with the dolphins in the crystal clear water, the animals seemed delighted
to play with us. (I think they like to show off how much better they can
In spite of the dolphin smile, dolphins have well-developed social structures
and individual personalities and moods. Do not try to touch dolphins unless
a trainer says its OK and you are specifically instructed how. Respect
is the first rule of any encounter with animals.
dolphin interaction experiences are a sure bet. These programs usually
involve trained dolphins in a pool, pen or ocean enclosure. The dolphins
are fed treats to interact with the divers. Many people have valid
issues with keeping dolphins in captivity. Proponents suggest that
the relatively few dolphins in captivity serve as ambassadors for
the ones in the wild, helping people to understand the animal, and
making possible efforts to protect the wild ones. These days, dolphins
in captivity are generally kept by responsible organizations who make
every effort to ensure the animals health and happiness.
Cozumels Dolphin Discovery offers programs for children and
even the chance to learn to ride the dorsal fins.
No matter which kind of dolphin encounter you choose, there is little
doubt that diving with dolphins will be among the most memorable dives
you will ever do. Once the privilege of a select few, encounters with
dolphins are now more accessible than ever. While it may be a lot easier
and more common to dive with dolphins, it does not diminish the magic
of the experience. If diving with dolphins is on your top 10 list, there
is no reason to wait. The dolphins are there, just waiting for someone
to join them!