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Some of the more wonderful experiences of my life have taken place in the ocean, when I've been swimming with dolphins and other marine life: a pod of dolphins streaming past at high speed underwater. A green sea turtle lazily swimming by, staring curiously. An eel jetting over the reef to his hidy-hole. Touching the suedelike skin of a stingray.
We can see fish and marine mammals in aquariums, but snorkeling and scuba diving can give us the best opportunities to interact with marine life. Here’s how to do so safely and responsibly.
One note: Before you dive, it's important to be familiar with the laws that govern interactions with marine life of any sort. In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) makes it illegal to harass a marine mammal. Some dive operators take that to mean no in-water interaction of any type, while others provide strict guidelines about how to behave in the water.
“Dolphins usually enjoy the company of swimmers as long as the swimmers don’t intentionally swim at them or try to grab at them, which is how a predator would behave,” says Malori Scrivner, a crew member with Wild Side Specialty Tours in Oahu, Hawaii. “A dolphin’s skin is very sensitive. A swimmer’s touch may be uncomfortable for the dolphin."Dolphin "wetiquette" includes swimming calmly alongside the dolphins, rather than chasing them; not trying to touch, ride or hug them; and not splashing or squealing. A dolphin’s senses of hearing and touch are highly sensitive, and loud noises or attempts to pet them can scare them away. She adds, "If you get the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins, enjoy the amazing experience but respect their personal space.”
While many destinations advertise opportunities to snorkel with captive dolphins, experiencing them in the wild is a kinder and more natural way to interact with them. “When swimming with dolphins in the wild, you’re able to witness their natural behavior, high intelligence and strong social bonds,” Scrivner says. “Unlike captive dolphins who are trained to behave a certain way, wild dolphins choose to interact and swim with us, which makes it even more special.”
Hawaii, Florida and California are all good places to see and swim with dolphins in the open ocean. Choose an operator who limits the number of people on the boat or in the water, who is respectful toward and knowledgeable about cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) and who abides by the MMPA. You may also see dolphins on your own as you paddleboard or snorkel the coast, especially in Southern California. If you watch patiently, you will likely be rewarded by seeing them play, hunt and feed.
“The experience isn’t just watching the dolphins swim by but learning about their behaviors and social cues and then witnessing and understanding them in the moment,” Scrivner says.
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