So maybe it’s beginner’s luck or maybe it’s simply because Hawaii is unconditionally perfect. Maybe I was a good girl that year or perhaps Karma finally got back to me for rehabilitating that bird that crashed into my office window. Whatever the reason, my first snorkeling experience was like winning the oceanographic lottery. Like, the best thing ever of all time. Especially for a geeky ocean-lover like myself who spent her childhood learning to draw the perfect dolphin (still got it, btw), watching and re-watching Free Willy and wasting entire days listening for Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There?” on the radio so I could tape it. TAPE IT. You know, pressing the ‘play’ and ‘record’ buttons simultaneously on the cassette player? (Readers under 25, ask your parents.) Every week was shark week in my seashell-filled house.
Why I waited so late in life to go snorkeling boggles the mind*. Like, real snorkeling… off a boat… with real gear and a guide. Not like the time I took a nose dive off a sandbar because I was so excited I caught a seahorse with my bare hands – and struggled desperately for air while everyone laughed at me. I was four.
*The fact that I grew up 600 miles from the nearest ocean and the closest thing I had to a body of water is known as the “Muddy Miss’ipp” is most likely the reason for this.
I know I’m probably the last chick on earth to go snorkeling but in case I’m not, heed my advice! If you have yet to go snorkeling in Hawaii, heed my advice! This definitely tops the list of ‘things to do in Hawaii.’ Actually, just read on. You’re bound to get something out of this article and if nothing else, I’ve included pictures of baby dolphins. You’re welcome.
DO choose a great company to snorkel with.
After researching my ass off
and deciding to quit my job to pursue a life of baby dolphin cuddling I chose Wild Side Specialty Tours out of Waianae, Hawaii and never regretted it. Unless there was indeed an open position for baby dolphin snuggler somewhere, I couldn’t have been happier with my decision. You know those rare moments when you startlingly make the best possible choice? Like when you decide to just let that invasive vine grow around your house only to be surprisingly bestowed with an infinite number of grapes with which to make wine? Or when you come home with a stray dog you picked up next to the railroad and it ends up saving your life in a fire? Or when you decide to start a blog and it becomes just insanely successful? This was one of those times!
Wild Side advertises whale watching, swimming with dolphins and turtle reef snorkeling with a 95+% sighting rate all in the animals’ natural habitats. Sure, that sounds like a great pitch but what really sold me was their undeniable respect for the animals above all else. I don’t want to swim with captured, trained dolphins in an enclosed area. I don’t want to snorkel alongside idiots who think it’s fun to provoke animals (the cage bangers of the zoo world). And I don’t want to support a company that views any of that as acceptable. I want to see these animals and experience the ocean on their terms and Wild Side agrees with this 100%.
FYI: I am in no way affiliated with Wild Side Specialty Tours (unfortunately!). I am just THAT impressed with them.
The guided snorkeling tours offered by Wild Side are enthusiastically led by an expert crew of marine and wildlife biologists so, if you’re like me, you can get all 89,000 questions you have about marine life answered by professionals. I’m a delight! These crew members are just as awestruck by the wildlife as you are and while you’re in the water with one guide, the other is on the boat shooting photos from above. Give your email address to the crew and they will send you the photos they take with some of the biggest camera lenses I’ve ever seen that I thought were specifically for capturing spit spewing from a soccer player’s mouth as he gets hit in the face with the ball. You know the ones I’m talking about.
DON’T fret the cost.
I say this because it will be one of the best experiences of your life and worth every penny. Better than when the guy who borrows your pen actually gives it back. Better than your cat learning to give high-fives. Better than taking your bra off after a long day of work. Plus, you’re already in Hawaii so you’re obviously into splurging and ignoring student loan debt. As with everything else in life, when snorkeling in Hawaii, you get what you pay for. For our tour we chose Wild Side’s Best of the West package and it was perrrrfect. Like when the gas pump stops on the dollar, perfect. Some benefits of this package include:
- lunch, snacks, beverages provided – sandwiches homemade by our guides
- all snorkel gear provided (even though I brought my own – Why do I own fancy scuba gear if I’ve never been snorkeling? you ask. We may need to have a longer conversation…)
- maximum of six people per outing for a very personalized experience – You want to go there and do that? Cool, let’s do it! Y’all* want to see more of this? Sure…
- longest tour available – Even at almost four hours this tour flies by (cause you’re having fun, duh) and I can’t imagine spending any less time in the water.
*They don’t say “y’all”
DO bring a waterproof camera.
This seems obvious, right? If, for some reason, you don’t consider this until you’re on your way to the marina, have no fear! There’s a Best Buy near! Or just be proactive and purchase one ahead of time. I was lucky enough to snag this awesome Fuji (I’m as obsessed with Fuji cameras as I am my orca bed sheets) last minute and I am so happy I did. I would have been devastated had I not been able to capture swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. Yes, I’m quite dramatic. This camera has come in handy so many other times while hiking (it’s shock proof – and with my record of falling down, a necessary attribute), during my visit to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon (another time a camera is an absolute must), and anytime I’m in or near water. Except when I’m showering or cooking spaghetti. Just kidding, I don’t cook. It also takes great videos that I won’t share with you due to the many awkward crotch shots I captured while trying to stay upright in the waves… I’m still working on my technique.
DO squeal like a little girl when you first catch sight of baby dolphins.
It’s totally fine. I know you can’t help it. They’re just so cutie cute cute – I just wanna smooch their wittle faces off! And they’re five feet away from you. And sometimes they turn over on their backs and swim upside down, struggling to turn back over. It’s just so damn precious.
DON’T inhale with your snorkel below the surface.
I know it’s all very exciting, baby dolphins and all, and you may feel one with the ocean at this point, but you are not a fish. You require oxygen to breathe and a set of lungs full of seawater does not make you a mermaid. Also, dolphins poop in this water. I was there.
DON’T kill yourself trying to keep up with the dolphins.
Before you enter the water you are briefed in animal encounter etiquette. Your guides explain that when encountering a pod of wild dolphins you are to join the pod, swim along with them so they don’t feel threatened and they will accept your presence. Join the pod?? I’ll be accepted as a dolphin?? It’s as if sprouting a dorsal fin and swimming off into the deep blue sea hasn’t been my wildest lifelong dream!
One thing you will quickly notice is that even though the dolphins are barely moving at all you will be supremely exhausted trying to keep up (basically every time I’ve ever run to catch a plane, or away from a flock of geese). They appear to glide effortlessly through the water but you will struggle to survive. You will gasp for air, hopefully with your snorkel above the surface. Your arms and legs will feel like lead weights that you can’t possibly drag around another minute. You are clearly not a dolphin. Lucky for us, the pods swim in circles so they will come back around to get you (no dolphin left behind!). Seriously though, I don’t know how they do it.
DO keep your ears open.
Because it’s basically silent underwater, this shouldn’t be too much of a chore but you will need to pay attention. When in the dolphin pods, and if you get the chance at a whale encounter, in between your own squeals of delight you will be able to hear the animals communicating with each other quite clearly. That right there was one of the coolest experiences of my life and something that I think a lot of people missed. Besides, I speak whale and you wouldn’t believe the conversation I overheard… wow…
DON’T touch the turtles.
First of all, it’s against federal and state wildlife conservation laws to disturb these animals in any way which, surprise surprise, includes touching. Do you really want to go viral? I didn’t think so.
Second of all, have some respect for cryin’ out loud. It would be like a raccoon busting your door down, finding you half asleep on the couch watching reruns of Seinfeld, and poking at you with its little raccoon hand. Actually, that sounds kind of cute. OK I’m going to change raccoon to bear and I’m going to change Seinfeld to The Shining so that when it pokes you with its giant clawed hand your heart stops and you scream bloody murder while you wet yourself.
Remember, you’re in their house as a visitor who just invited his/herself right on in. And this is coming from the girl who just absolutely has to touch everything!!! Sea turtles feel just like any old turtle* so if you must, take a trip to your neighborhood pet store and ask if you can pet one of theirs. Go ahead, I dare you.
*I worked in sea turtle conservation at an aquarium in Florida where the touching of a turtle was sometimes necessary. As was the de-beaking of squids, but that’s a story for another day.
DO jump in with the whales.
At one point during the trip we came upon a pod of pilot whales, because as I said, Hawaii is just like the most magical place ever. Our guides explained the less-than-friendly nature of pilot whales and their affinity for violently dragging snorkelers down to the depths of the ocean. They also explained how pods of pilot whales are almost always trailed by schools of hungry whitetip reef sharks, their fearless little buddies*. So naturally I couldn’t wait to get in! The other snorkelers on our boat were shaking in their flippers and fiercely refusing to go near the water. WIMPS! My husband and I couldn’t get in the water fast enough.
As soon as we entered the water the whales started to dive and treated us to the most ridiculously badass experience. The entire pod dove down and swam directly under us, babies and all. If you are ever rewarded with this opportunity, take it! Don’t be the weenies on the boat. I was stunned. Completely speechless. I’ve never felt more alive! All other clichés! How often do you get the chance to swim in the ocean surrounded by whales? Of course I’m jumping in! 8-year-old me would have been crying hysterically with excitement, 30-year-old me was able to keep her shit together.
*According to Wild Side’s page on pilot whales, “Oceanic white-tip sharks will often associate with pods of pilot whales. Following the whales while they hunt, they take advantage of the whale’s sonar abilities. The sharks also feed on the remains resulting from the whales attacks on schooling fish – and seem to also eat the pilot whale’s protein-rich feces for sustenance during lean times.” See? Feces.
DON’T assume you’re alone.
The only disappointment I suffered that day was not seeing any sharks while I was with the whales. I was told later that even though I didn’t see them, they were definitely there. Watching… waiting… licking their chops. (Do sharks have tongues? A question I forgot to ask on the boat.) Also, we were told the whale pod was a nursery pod (obvs) so while all I saw was a bunch of females and their babies, one giant male was secretly watching us… waiting… licking his chops.
DO be careful what you wish for.
Before we set out for the day, our guides asked us if there was anything specific we wanted to see so they could do their best to make it happen. The other snorkelers’ suggestions included “sea turtles” and “dolphins.” Well no shit, that’s what we are paying to see. I said “octopus” because I love them and because I have the gift of a great imagination. Shortly into the trip a couple of spearfishermen swam by with an octopus on a stick! Not exactly how I wanted to see my first wild octopus but I did get what I asked for. These cephalopods, I was told, were also most definitely all around us but those little camouflaged bastards are tricky to spot.
There was one other thing I was hoping to see which I did – a humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, Hawaii’s fun to say official state fish.
DON’T forget your sunscreen.
Happy snorkeling 🙂
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