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Ask any 10 divers to list their top 10 dive fantasies, and I’m 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.
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 leaped into the bow wave. We couldn’t 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 aren’t 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.
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 snorkel—it’s tough.
Every once in a while the dolphins would get a little bored and start wandering off while we all caught our breath. That’s when one of the crew members would grab his DPV (Diver Propulsion Vehicle) and start doing circles. One thing for sure, dolphins can’t resist the DPV! It brought them streaking back many times. For a whole week, we did this aerobic workout every day.
Semi-captive dolphin interactions combine the best of both worlds—a 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 don’t 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.
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 Anthony’s 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 leash—excited, 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 the animals.
Wild 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 I’m 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.
Anthony’s Key Resort is not the only place to find semi-captive dolphin experiences. Other places, most notably Unexso in Grand Bahama, offer similar programs.
Another excellent captive dolphin experience I’ve 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, I’ll admit it. I went through the program where you learn to ride on the dorsal fins of two dolphins, and it’s 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 swim.)
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 it’s OK and you are specifically instructed how. Respect is the first rule of any encounter with animals.
Captive 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.
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!
By Jonathan Bird