Travel Blog #119 – Kona Dolphin Swim with Captain “China” Mike

Jul 8, 2021 | Activity Information

Swimming with the dolphins in the wild is something that can be easily arranged by Tom Barefoots Tours for anyone vacationing on the Big Island.

Unlike the whales, dolphins are in Hawaii year round. They do not migrate long distances and generally follow the same daily routines. This makes them relatively easy for an experienced captain to find if they’re looking in the right areas. Captain China Mike of the Big Island snorkel company Sunlight on Water operates a dolphin snorkel that is different from most. With his trip the goal is not to view the dolphins from the boat, but to actually get in the water and swim around with them. As you can imagine, I was eager to see what this trip was all about and jumped at the opportunity to check it out when was recently visiting the Big Island from my home on Maui.

We met up with China Mike at the Honokohau Boat Harbor about ten minutes north of Kona Town. As we walked up to the boat that was still perched on its trailer next to the boat ramp China Mike handed us waivers that were attached to a clipboard for us to fill out. As we filled out the forms Captain China backed his boat down the boat ramp and into the water. The first mate began to board all of us onto the boat while China parked the truck. As soon as we were all loaded up China started the motor and we began to make our way out of the harbor and up the Kona Coastline towards the resorts in Waikoloa.

It took us about 20 minutes before China spotted the days first pod of dolphins. It was directly in front of us, slowly making its way in our direction. Unlike humans, dolphins do not completely loose consciousness when they sleep. Instead they go into what is referred to as an alpha state, where half of their brain shuts off. During this time they swim closer to the surface at a slower then normal pace to conserve energy. In the morning they are generally still in, or just coming out of their alpha state which makes it the ideal time to swim with them because they are generally moving much slower then they do later in the day. The pod that was in front of our boat appeared to still be in their alpha state. To avoid disturbing them China turned the boat around to get further ahead of them so we would have enough time to all get in the water before they caught up to us.

The first mate lined us all up along the back of the boat and then, as soon as the motors were shut off, signaled for us to get in the water . Within 30 seconds of getting into the water the dolphins were close enough to see clearly. The majority of them were all crowded around their babies, (which were about the size of footballs) swimming in a very tight formation. The remainder of them patrolled around the core of the pod, curiously examining each member of our group as they slowly swam past.

As soon as the pod of dolphins had made their way past us China waved us all back to the boat. When we were all loaded in the boat, the motors turned back on and China set us on a course to pass the dolphins so we could get ahead of them and get back in the water to swim with them again. This process continued until be had swam with the dolphins four separate times. Each time we got back in the water the dolphins were progressively more awake. During our fourth swim some of the dolphins became very curious of us. The level of interaction that we had with the dolphins was amazing, at one point there was a dolphin that actually swam circles around individual people, almost like it was trying to get them to play. Most of our group was so amazed at the sight of the dolphins that they could hardly do anything more then float motionless on the surface. However, the sight of the dolphins brought out the a very playful energy in other members of the group which was apparent by the way they were swimming around underwater, mimicking the path of the dolphins as they banked and circled to keep their eyes locked onto the passing cetaceans.
After the trip was done and we were back at the harbor I took some time to talk with some members of our group about the mornings experience and each person I talked to was still in a state of awe from the mornings experience. Everyone seemed to have found precisely what they were looking to find during the mornings experience.

After I was done talking with the passengers, I looped back to the boat to talk to “China” some more. I asked him some questions to try an get a better understanding of how these trips normally run. When I asked China how often his dolphin encounters are like what we experienced and he smiled and said, We get people in the water swimming with similar sized pods to what we saw today about 95% of the time.