One of my greatest ever encounters with nature happened in Cape Town, South Africa, about six years ago. There, my brother and I had joined a cage-diving expedition, where we were lowered into the waters of False Bay in a (rather flimsy) steel cage, so that we could get up close and personal with a few rambunctious Great Whites.
Although incredible as that shark dive was (trust me – there is nothing quite so terrifying as seeing a Great White charge straight at you from ten meters away) it was not the highlight of the day. Rather, for me that trip peaked after the sharks, when we came across a huge pod of dolphins as we were making our way back to shore. And by huge, I mean properly HUGE – well over a thousand of the playful porpoises, who were on the move across False Bay following a migrating school of fish.
The captain managed to position the boat right in the middle of the pod, so that for fifteen minutes we cruised along as if we had become a part of it. Wherever I looked – left, right, back or front, as far as I could see – there were dolphins. Hundreds and hundreds of them, swimming alongside the boat, breaking out of the water then diving back under, again and again and again. A few of the more adventurous dolphins even began jumping high into the air, right in front of us, before dropping back into the water with a loud splash. When I dangled my hand over the side of the boat, the dolphins got so close as to brush my fingertips when they passed.
It was wonderful to see, and there was actually quite a bit more to the whole experience that involved not just dolphins and sharks but also seals, whales, swarming fish, gulls and a bombardment by flocks of diving Cape cormorants (you can read the full story by clicking here). But without question, it was the dolphins who stole my heart. They were beguiling, and I immediately crossed “dolphin encounter” off of my bucket list. I mean, what point was there in ever again checking out dolphins at an aquarium, or in a hotel lagoon, or at a Sea World show? How could I possibly expect to top the experience of watching a thousand dolphins at play in the wild?
That was until a few weeks ago, when I found myself in Hawaii for a long-weekend (to read my previous post from that trip, about an early morning visit to the Honolulu fish auctions, click here). And where, while leafing through a tourist brochure, I came across an ad for Hawaii Dolphin Excursions, a tour company that offered not only the chance to observe spinner dolphins in the wild, but also promised we would be able to hop in the water and paddle about with them as well.
This caught my attention, big time. I mean, seeing dolphins was one thing (been there, done that), but getting to swim with dolphins in the open ocean? That sounded like a most excellent upgrade on my previous (admittedly already extraordinary) South African dolphin encounter. And when it turned out that the Dolphin Excursion departure point was in Waianae Bay, on the relatively remote west coast of Hawaii’s Oahu Island but a mere 15 minutes from where we happened to be staying, it really did seem like fate was calling.
All of which serves to explain how at 8:00 am on a sunny Hawaiian morning in January of 2019, I came to be standing on the deck of a small boat, heading out to sea, at high speed, in search of dolphins. We were part of a small group of ten, tended to by an all-female crew consisting of a captain, a guide, an assistant, and a photographer.
The boat itself was pretty small, and bounced around a lot on the waves, so it seemed more like a souped-up dinghy than a proper oceangoing vessel, and I was a bit doubtful as to its seaworthiness. Although perhaps sensing that doubt, our captain, a statuesque lady with deeply bronzed skin and sun-bleached hair, proceeded to explain: “You are not on a tour and this is not a boat made for cruising. We are chasing dolphins, safari-style. This vessel has been custom-built for that purpose – it is maneuverable and fast, but also quiet, and designed in a way so you can get into the water quickly once we find a pod.” Fair enough.
After about thirty minutes, I looked back. We were a long way out from land – probably ten kilometers or so. In the far off distance I could see Oahu’s silhouette, a series of steep, dramatic volcano cliffs dropping sharply to the sea. Hawaii is nothing if not visually spectacular.
The captain suddenly killed the engine, and for a few moments we floated along, drifting on the waves. Then, a small fin appeared. Within seconds it was joined by another, and then another, and then there were dolphins all around us – probably two dozen. Like those I’d seen in South Africa, they seemed playful and entirely unfazed by our presence, darting back and forth in front of the boat. For about five minutes all activity on the boat ceased – no-one spoke or moved an inch – and instead we all watched with big smiles on our faces as the dolphins did their thing. It was mesmerizing.
“Want to get in?” our guide asked, breaking the silence.
What a question? We all quickly put on flippers and snorkels, and one by one slipped into the sea. That far out from shore the water was chilly, but very clear. Although the bottom was nowhere to be seen, there was no plant life or anything else floating in the water, and there weren’t any fish swimming by. So it felt as if we had dropped ourselves into a vast empty ocean of nothing but blueness, that reached out in every direction around us. In other words, just the kind of place you’d expect to meet a shark and I must confess I felt my stomach tighten into a knot of anxiety as I lowered myself into the water.
To make matters worse, the dolphins had vanished. One minute they had been there, but no sooner had we got into the water than they were gone. We bobbed around, looking this way and that under the water, hoping that the porpoises would return. No such luck: the dolphins did not show up (mind you, no shark did either, so I guess there is that). After a few minutes the guide signaled for us to call it quits, and we clambered back into the boat.
She explained what had happened. “Unlike dolphins in an aquarium, these dolphins are wild – they are not here for you! Some days they will be playful and hang around with us once we get in the water; other days they aren’t in the mood and bolt – it is totally unpredictable. That’s why we call it ‘safari-style’. We will see if we can find another pod, and try again. Remember to keep as quiet as you can, and don’t swim towards the dolphins or splash a lot, because that will scare them off. Believe me, the best thing is to do nothing and just float – if they want to play, they will come to you….”
We set off again, and about twenty minutes later the captain spotted another pod. Once more we stopped and slipped into the water as quietly as possible. Once more, no sooner had we entered their domain than the dolphins skedaddled. And then we tried a third time, with the same result. After which the captain said we had run out of time, and would need to begin the return trip to Waianae Harbor.
On the way, she took us in close to shore, stopping at a spot where warm water from a land-side power station flowed into the ocean. There the warmer water temperature had encouraged coral growth, which in turn attracted all manner of colorful fish, as well as sea turtles. So by way of compensation for lack of dolphins we got to snorkel alongside a few majestic, very large turtles, which was a pretty cool thing to do.
Still, I felt let down. There was to be no swimming with dolphins in the wild that day, and that sucked. Cape Town would have to remain my ultimate dolphin experience.
So anyway, after swimming with the turtles for a bit, we got back on board the boat and began the final leg of the day, back to harbor. It was almost lunchtime, we had been at sea for about four hours, and I was feeling a bit woozy from all the sunshine and the bouncing of the boat. Dolphins or no dolphins, the excursion was all but done.
Suddenly, the captain pointed to the right of the boat and shouted at the top of her voice, so loud I thought that something was wrong: “Whale!”
I quickly looked over to where she was pointing, and at first I saw nothing. But then, from a spot on the water only forty meters or so away from the boat, a jet of water shot straight up, high into the air. And immediately after that the shiny black body of a massive whale rolled languidly through the swell, then slipped under. The last thing I saw was its tail flipper, almost waving at me as it vanished beneath the waves.
The captain immediately slowed the boat, and everyone became quite excited as we all rushed to the side and craned our necks, hoping for another glimpse of the whale. Meanwhile, the guide did her best to temper our expectations. “At this time of year whales migrate through this area, so whale sightings are frequent. But once they come to surface, take a breath and dive down, they can remain underwater for about fifteen minutes, and during that time can swim a huge distance. So chances are we won’t be seeing that whale again.”
I sighed. One fleeting glimpse of a whale, and that was it. Clearly, it was not going to be my day.
But then, without warning, there was another jet of spray, the surface of the water broke, and the whale returned, only this time propelling itself straight up into the air (or “breaching” in the technical lingo of whale aficionados).
Everyone on the boat caught their breath, but before we’d had a moment to process what was happening, a second whale breached, unannounced, not too far from the first. Such that for a brief instant there were two fully formed whales, practically airborne and right alongside us. Even our guide (a lady who makes her living chasing dolphins and whales) gasped at the sight. “Holy fuck! A double breach! You don’t see that every day!” she yelled.
The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds – the whales breaching, hanging in the air, and then falling back to hit the water with a giant splash. After which, as suddenly as they had arrived they were gone, leaving behind in their wake nothing but a boatload of speechless, gob-smacked humans.
Seriously, one of the most awe-inspiring things I have seen in a very, very long time.
So in the end, it did turn out to be my day, only different to the one I had been expecting. In chasing dolphins, we had found whales instead. Reminding me of a favorite quote attributed to the Israeli philosopher Martin Buber: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware”.
Because sometimes, the true magic of travel comes when we find one thing in a place we least expect, while in hot pursuit of something else entirely.