The Big Island offers one of the most unique experiences in the world, where you can join several pods of wild dolphins as they swim south along the coast in their daily routine. This is experience is different from meeting dolphins in captivity. While that may be more appropriate for non-swimmers or for those who really want to touch the animals or see them perform trained tricks, this experience is better for people who truly appreciate seeing wildlife in their natural habitat. Tour operators take you to meet up with these dolphins in their trek down the coast, drop you in the water so the dolphins swim by you, then pick you up and motor you ahead of the dolphins again after they pass by.
While there are 5 or 6 such tour operators, I would never choose anyone but John Float with Dolphin Essence. First and foremost, John limits his boat to 6 passengers, far fewer than the 15-30 allowed by other boats - the biggest advantage of this is that your "team" is more agile getting into and out of the water. This is important because the dolphins move fast - they don't just hang around you and play like Flipper - they will pass by in a few short minutes and you have to be able to get loaded back up to motor ahead of the pod again.
Secondly, John uses a Zodiak boat, which is much smaller than most. The advantage to that is that when you're in the boat and the dolphins are swimming alongside it, you are within inches of them. You see them surface to breathe, they swim on all sides of the boat, and in my most recent trip, one of them swam alongside us and slapped his tail on the water hard enough to splash us on the boat. Even the non-swimmers in the group really enjoyed this part of the tour.
Finally, John is simply a beautiful person - versed in Hawaiian ways, sincere in his love for the ocean and the dolphins, and trusting in a way that I as a mainlander was not prepared for. He worked really hard to be sure he found the best situation for our group and tried to stay away from the crowds from the bigger boats.
Some things to consider: while swimmers and non-swimmers alike can gain something from this experience, I recommend that only good swimmers should enter the water. The dolphins are not going to come up to you if you're just hanging out in the water - you need to be moving along at a good clip to experience these dolphins as they swim. Also, while I prefer the smaller boat, I could imagine that in rougher seas (it was as smooth as glass the day I went), a smaller boat might be more difficult for those unaccustomed to being on the water. Finally, the focus of the day is on getting in the water with dolphins and not on a gourmet meal, so fuel up ahead of time. John did offer some light snacks (water, trail mix, and some cookies), but he doesn't do a big barbecue on the boat like some snorkeling tours do. For good eats after you're done, I highly recommend the Bite Me Fish Market in the marina.
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