How to Swim with Dolphins in Kona & What to Expect

There are plenty of dolphins off the Hawaii coast, and if you get the chance to swim with dolphins in Kona, you should definitely take it.

Most of them are Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins.

They are smaller than the better known bottle-nose dolphins which can make them more difficult to spot. That is, unless you find them during play time.

They are named Spinner Dolphins for a reason. That reason, as you might have guessed, is the way they spin when they leap out of the water.

Keep your eyes open while sitting on the beach, or any time you have a good view of the Kona shore (beachfront hotel room? restaurant overlooking the water?) Binoculars can certainly help.

You might even run into some of these dolphins on a Kona snorkeling trip.

How To Improve Your Chances Of Seeing The Dolphins

Of course there is no guarantee of seeing wild dolphins, but if you have your heart set on meeting these playful creatures you might want to consider booking a dolphin tour.

On a “swim with dolphins Kona” tour, the only real itinerary is looking for dolphins, wherever that may end up taking your boat. You have a much greater chance of seeing them, and seeing them up close, than you do on any other type of snorkel tour that is taking you directly to a snorkel site.

Controversy Over Swimming With Dolphins in Kona

I’ll take a moment to mention that there is some controversy over swimming with wild dolphins.  

More specifically, there is concern that human interaction may be harmful to the spinner dolphins.

The spinner dolphins swim out into deep waters to hunt at night and come back to the shallow coastal areas during the day to get their rest. The time when they are traveling between hunting and resting areas is when they are said to be the most playful.

Kona spinner dolphins

Some scientists are becoming concerned that human interest in the spinner dolphins during their rest periods may be harming them.

Specifically, the concern is that the dolphins are spending too much energy either engaging with curious humans or swimming away from their boats.

We all know that a good night’s rest is what helps us to function during the day and the same is true for dolphins.

Disturbing their rest may lessen their ability to hunt or to stay alert for predators while looking for food in deeper waters.

There are not currently any regulations prohibiting tours to swim with these dolphins.

If you do choose to take a tour, as I did, I’d encourage you to be mindful of these concerns for the dolphins well-being when choosing which tour company to use.

What To Expect On Your Kona Dolphin Tour

I’m going to answer some of the questions you may be wondering about for your upcoming tour and I’m going to use two separate experiences to do so.  

One, of course, is the dolphin tour that I booked and experienced for myself.  

The second is a tour group that I witnessed from the balcony of my condo the next day.  These tours are very dependent on the location and the mood of the wild dolphins and may vary greatly from one tour to the next.

Q:  Did you see dolphins?

A:  Yes!  In both my tour, and the tour I was able to watch from my balcony, the tour groups saw dolphins.  Here is a quick video of the dolphins I saw on my tour.

Q:  Did you swim with the dolphins?

A:  My tour – Yes, but only briefly.  We were only allowed 3 attempts to swim with the dolphins.  

If the dolphins did not want to swim with us after 3 tries then we would go to another snorkeling site so as not to harass the dolphins.  We also were not allowed to get into the water in the immediate vicinity of the pod to make sure we didn’t startle them.

After spotting the dolphins from the boat we would watch them to determine what direction they were swimming.  

Our captain would take us a good distance in front of the pod (at least a football field ahead of them), we would get into the water, and hope that the dolphins would join us shortly afterwards.  On the first two attempts the dolphins changed directions before they got to us.

On the third attempt we had better luck.  5 dolphins swam underneath of us or close enough that we could clearly see them through the water.  None of the dolphins stuck around though, we just got to see them in passing.

Other tour – Yes!  In the tour I was able to watch from my condo’s balcony the dolphins stayed in the area of the swimmers for a very long time.  It seemed to be at least an hour that the snorkelers were able to swim with the dolphins.  

Looks like I booked my tour on the wrong day.

Q:  How close did the dolphins get to you?  Did they interact with you?

A:  While we were in the water the dolphins didn’t get too close, but luckily the visibility is so fantastic in Hawaii that we could see them perfectly clearly.  

If I had to make a guess I’d say the dolphins stayed about 20 feet away from us.

The dolphins didn’t interact with us in the water, we just watched them swim past.  Once we thought the dolphins had left the area we got back onto our boat to head to a snorkeling site.  On the way the dolphins had one last surprise for us.  

They swam right up to our boat and followed us along for quite a while.

We were on a small zodiac boat so while we were cruising I was able to lay over the side of the boat and reach my GoPro into the water to take some video of these dolphins swimming along side and underneath of us.  

The dolphins were swimming very close to our boat, probably not more than 5-10 feet away.

Q:  How many other tour groups were around?

A:  My tour –  We had a lot of trouble finding a pod of dolphins on the day of my tour.  

We probably rode up the coast for at least an hour before we found any dolphins at all.  According to our captain this was pretty unusual.

Clearly the other tour groups were having the same problem, because not long after we found a pod of dolphins it seemed that every other tour operator in Kona showed up at our same snorkel site.  

This mass number of boats and snorkelers (at least 10-15 boats) is likely the reason the dolphins didn’t stick around for very long.

Other tour – In the tour I was able to watch from my condo’s balcony there was originally just one tour boat snorkeling.  

Eventually a second boat of snorkelers joined in but the dolphins stuck around a while longer, so they didn’t seem to be scared off.

Q:  How deep was the water?

A:  There wasn’t a set location for this tour.  

We stopped and got into the water wherever we found the dolphins.  

There were a couple of times where the water was deep enough that you couldn’t see the bottom.  The visibility is excellent so when you can’t see the bottom you know the water is quite deep.

We were never out of view of the shoreline though and the boat had flotation devices for anyone that wasn’t comfortable swimming in deep water on their own.  

As our captain said, “you can’t see the bottom, but I promise it’s still there.”

Q:  Did you see any other animals besides the dolphins in the water?

A:  Where the water was deep enough that we couldn’t see the ocean floor we didn’t see any other animals.  

When we stopped in spots where you could see the ocean floor and the coral on it we could also see small colorful fish.  We did not see anything larger like turtles, stingrays, sharks, or whales.

Q:  Who should you book your tour with?

A:  The tour companies all look for dolphins in the same areas, so I don’t think any one company has a better chance of a dolphin encounter than the next.

Things you should consider are the size of the tour group and how respectful the company is of the dolphins.

A smaller tour group means less commotion while everyone is getting in and out of the water.  This is likely to increase the odds that the dolphins stick around for a while instead of swimming away once you get into the water.

I booked with Dolphin Discoveries and had a fantastic experience.  In addition to small tour group sizes, I felt that the captain was very respectful of the dolphins.  I would highly recommend booking with Dolphin Discoveries.

The tour was 4 hours and was timed so that our dolphin encounter would occur during the playful time between hunting and resting behaviors. This is good for the tourists (playful dolphins) and for the dolphins (not interrupting their rest).

Our captain made clear that once we found the dolphins, we would only have three chances to swim with them.

If the dolphins did not stick around on any of those three chances then we would move on to a snorkeling site to see coral and colorful fish. We would not harass them if they were not interested in swimming with us.

When we found the dolphins, it was not going to be a free-for-all of tourists jumping right into the middle of the pod.

We weren’t going to scare or alarm the spinner dolphins.

We first observed the dolphins from the boat, trying to determine which direction they were swimming. The captain would then position us well ahead of the pod and stop the boat.

We would get into the water very far from the dolphins and hope that they would continue their path towards us, making it very easy for the dolphins to detour if they were scared or uninterested in interacting with us.

I will note that there were some other tour boats in the area that clearly had different priorities. Their tourists would jump right into the middle of a pod of dolphins. I’m sure this would be very exciting for the humans, but is obviously not prioritizing the dolphin’s experience.

Lastly, our captain made abundantly clear that if a dolphin was near us we were not to reach out to try to touch them or attempt to free-dive down below the surface to get closer to them. The comfort of the dolphins was top priority.

Should You Swim With The Dolphins?

Some people argue that any tour, regardless of their ethics and behavior, may be harmful to the spinner dolphins. I don’t know whether or not that is true.

I felt comfortable with the tour that I booked and did not feel like we were harassing the dolphins in any way. Then again, I’m not a marine biologist.

I would like to hope that in the future there will be regulations in place to help clarify which human interactions are harmful to the dolphins. If that means stopping all tours, then so be it, because the dolphins needs should certainly be prioritized over our entertainment.

Before You Leave Kona…

If you are looking for other activities outside of swimming with dolphins in Kona or in Hawaii in general I’d suggest you check out these posts:

20 Days In California and Hawaii

Manta Ray Night Snorkel in Kona – Was It Scary?

Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving – Best Way To See Hawaii’s Manta Rays

In the meantime, if you do decide to swim with the dolphins I hope that you’ll do your research before booking a tour. Make sure you choose a company that agrees that these dolphins are special and should be respected.

What Did I Forget?

Do you have a question that I didn’t answer above?  

Leave it in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you!

Go Out and Explore