How to Observe Dolphins Responsibly in the Wild

Ellie Swain

Senior Contributor

Many bucket lists involve the ultimate travel dream – swimming with dolphins. However, in many cases, ‘swimming with dolphins’ programs whereby the dolphin is held in captivity puts the poor creatures through a lifetime of deprivation leading to mental and physical health issues. Cooped up in captivity, dolphins become exposed to foreign bacteria and the enclosed spaces and frequent attention from humans can result in them feeling anxious, aggressive, and neurotic. Thankfully, there are many ways to observe – and even swim - with these curious critters in the wild as they live free, healthy, and happy as nature intended. Keep reading to learn how to observe dolphins in the wild – the responsible way.

Embark on a Boat Trip

One of the most popular ways to spot frolicking dolphins sustainably is to hop onboard a boat and sail across the seas. After all, dolphins are clever and curious, and they love to approach cruising boats.

Across the world, many tour operators take keen travellers out to spot dolphins in the wild. But unfortunately, not all operators have the dolphin’s best interests at heart.

If you’re considering boarding a dolphin-spotting boat tour, there are several ways to learn how ethical an operator is. In most cases, sustainable tours are run by knowledgeable captains and naturalists who understand dolphin’s needs and behaviours. Have a look at the operator’s website, or scan some of the online reviews to see if there are any clues to suggest sustainability.

Remember, professional and ethical tour providers will never overcrowd or chase dolphins and understand that if there are too many boats around a pod of dolphins, they must retreat for the wellbeing of the creatures. Having too many boats around makes it a challenge for dolphins to swim smoothly, forage, or rest. Likewise, ethical operators will never approach dolphins at high speeds to avoid panicking them or prompting a potential collision.

Out in the wild, if dolphins don’t want to be watched, they’ll swim away. But if you’re lucky, you may well receive a performance to remember as they dance and twirl in the air. 

Snorkel or Scuba Dive

For an up-close and personal experience with dolphins, consider sharing the waters with the ocean mammals and opting to snorkel or scuba dive. Choose a popular spot where dolphins frequent often, and you may be lucky enough to play in the waters with them for the mere price of a mask and a pair of fins.

Look for a sightseeing boat tour that allows snorkelling or head out with a local guide who knows their stuff. Again, do your research on the company for the best ethical practices.

As with boat tours, you want to avoid any company that attempts to trap dolphins to swim with them or chases them when they decide to move away. The beauty of swimming with dolphins in the wild is that you know that they’re free and have their autonomy, so when they move away you must understand that it’s time to say goodbye.

Kayak or Paddle Board

Don’t want to get too wet? If you fancy a workout while spotting dolphins, consider renting a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard. If you visit a destination known for dolphin sightings, rental companies and tour guides will often advise on where to seek out the cruising creatures.

And since kayaks and paddleboards are quiet, you’re unlikely to scare off or deter any dolphins that are swimming in the area.

The Best Places to Observe Dolphins in the Wild

Now we know some of the best ways to observe dolphins in the wild, but where are some of the best spots across the globe for almost-guaranteed dolphin sightings? Keep reading.

  • Monkey Mia, Australia

    While there are many spots in Australia known for hosting dolphin inhabitants, the reserve of Monkey Mia on the Western Coast pretty much guarantees a glimpse of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins bobbing across the water. The area is famous for the dolphin’s almost daily ritual of swimming to the shore to meet with humans, and each year thousands of visitors make the trip to Monkey Mia on the remote West Coast.

    While there are fish feedings every morning, even if you sit on the beach during the day, you’re likely to spot a fin or two cutting through the glimmering water.

  • Azores, Portugal

    The Azores archipelago found in Portugal is one of the planet’s biggest marine sanctuaries, drawing in over 20 different species of dolphins and whales.

    While some species call the archipelago home and others are passing through, there’s always a beautiful mammal to spot almost any time of the year.

    Look out for resident dolphins including bottlenose, common, and Risso’s dolphins, and migratory dolphins such as Atlantic spotted dolphins and striped dolphins.

  • Kaikoura, New Zealand

    For your chance to share the chilly waters of New Zealand with dusky dolphins, head to the quaint coastal town of Kaikoura and hop on a boat tour with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura. An ethical company with the dolphin’s best interests at heart, with Dolphin Kaikoura you’ll search the seas for local pods with a maximum of 16 swimmers.

    While spottings aren’t guaranteed, if you do get lucky nothing can beat the experience of swimming side by side with the gentle and playful creatures in one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

  • Bimini, Bahamas

    The crystal blue tropical waters of Bimini in the Bahamas provide idyllic conditions for dolphin spotting. Atlantic spotted dolphins and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are regulars in the area, with the former reported to be curious and playful towards divers and snorkellers. 

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