Snorkeling, Swimming with Dolphins on The Big Island

­Jena Fox is on location in Hawaii's Big Island, and is staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Read about the first day of her trip here.

Hilton Waikoloa Village

An exterior shot of the Hilton Waikoloa Village

You remember that sappy poem that keeps coming back to how you should always wear sunscreen? Yeah, do that. Especially if you're going to be out in the sun all day. Especially if you're going to be in the sun and in the water all day. Apply sunscreen liberally, and keep re-applying. (But wait 15 minutes for your skin to soak it up before going into the water, or it'll just wash off. Yes, I learned this the hard way today, and yes, I do resemble a blond tomato.)

When I woke up this morning, the sun had just risen, and I heard weird noises coming from below my balcony. I walked out onto said balcony and looked down to see dolphins playing in the lagoon almost directly beneath me. Pretty cool way to start a day.

Had breakfast with the group on a patio by the lagoon and tried not to watch the animals playing while Adrea Gibbs, general manager of Dolphin Quest Hawaii (which has been part of the property since 1988), talked about the program and how it differs from others like it at other resorts. First of all, she emphasized, human beings can't swim 25 miles per hour, so it wouldn't be accurate to say that we'd be swimming with dolphins. "It's more like they're swimming with us," she said.

hawaii dolphins

Look closely and you'll see dolphin fins making ripples

The program, she went o­n to explain, is as much about learning from and about the dolphins as it is letting people play with them. Riding the dolphins is not allowed (Gibbs compared holding a dolphin by its dorsal fin to a human carrying another person by their nose), and, she emphasized, the dolphins are never forced to do anything they don't want to.

We got in the water and the dolphins swam over, and we got to pet and feed them while they performed tricks for treats. If a dolphin wasn't interested in the assigned trick, another would quickly swim over to earn its fish. It was utterly adorable, and the dolphins seemed perfectly happy to play with one another and with us. (Gibbs pointed out that the dolphins have had ample opportunity to escape, but like to stay where they are—they don’t even like moving to the larger lagoon adjacent to their own.)

Still wet from the dolphin lagoon, we piled into a van and headed to a beach on the property, where we set off on a catamaran for a black sand beach on the other side of the bay. While we chugged along, the staff instructed us on the finer points of snorkeling and on the fish and coral life we could expect to see. (One of our guides was named Pepper, and Pepper is studying to be a biologist. When she gets her Ph.D, she will, indeed, be Dr. Pepper. I’m not making this up at all.) When the catamaran dropped anchor, we jumped into the water (well, some of us jumped; some of us inched in slowly) to look up close at the coral and sea life.

pepper hawaii guide

Our guide, Pepper, filling us in on coral and sea life


The further we got from the boat, the bolder the fish got, and the more we could see. Both the coral and the fish were brightly colored and exquisite—there really aren’t words to describe the beauty of these exotic animals in their equally exotic environment. Someone caught a puffer fish and brought it onboard in a bucket so that everyone could have a look, and even hold the scared little fella before sending him back home where he belongs.

Far too soon, it was time to head back to the resort. (Well, maybe it wasn’t too soon at all. Did I mention the sunburn? It’s gotten worse since I started writing this. Owww.....) ­