It’s one thing to see dolphins from the surface –– dancing in the surf or playfully racing the bow of your dive boat –– but diving with them is an experience that will rate among the best dives in your life. And while you can continue to enjoy watching pods of this gentle mammal swim alongside your catamaran, these five encounters will get you up close and personal with everything from bottlenose dolphins to spinners at some of the world’s top dive spots.
Known for their spiraling, acrobatic leaps, spinner dolphins love bow riding; once you’re in the water with them they’ll playfully twist, turn and swim alongside you. Oahu is one of the best places to dive with spinners, which approach so close you can literally reach out and touch them. Although the dolphins aren’t guaranteed, you can reliably find friendly pods of spinners year-round along the south shore of Oahu. Time to Go: Year-round Operator: Dive Oahu, www.diveoahu.com Price Tag: Five-day unlimited dive packages with Dive Oahu are $385 and include pick up from Waikiki hotels. Insider’s Tip: After the dolphins have fed, just before dawn, they return to the warmer, shallower waters closer to shore, making early morning the best time to catch them in action as they burn off the calories.
Superpods of up to 1,000 dolphins are the norm along these stunning islands 621 miles west of Portugal in the North Atlantic. Home to five different species — bottlenose, common, spotted, striped and Risso’s — the area here is quiet, unpolluted and full of food, making it a hot spot for hungry dolphins. The shorter and more explosive striped dolphins might be harder to get close to, but the friendly bottlenose and spotted dolphins often gravitate toward small groups of divers. The Azores are also known as one of the world’s best places to spot whales, so don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a sperm, humpback or minke whale (among 18 other species). Time to Go: Though dolphins frequent this area year-round, plan your trip between April and October, when the water is calmer and the visibility at its zenith. Operator: Dive Azores, www.diveazores.net Price Tag: Dive Azores offers five accommodations packages — from condos to apartments to studios — and includes regular air fills, tanks, airport transfers, meals and more from $326 per person per night. Insider’s Tip: Book a trip to Princess Alice, a remote submarine mountain about three and a half hours from Horta, Faial island. There you'll see big schools of tuna, jacks and wahoos, but the main attractions are the mobula rays seen in July and August.
Roatán, Bay Islands
Perhaps the best chance you’ll have to come face-to-face with one of ocean’s most endearing creatures — bottlenose dolphins — is at Anthony’s Key Resort on Roatán in the Bay Islands. Sign up for the resort’s dolphin dive, during which you’ll spend 45 minutes 60 feet under the azure-blue water interacting with anywhere from two to four dolphins. Group sizes are kept intentionally small so you can have as much one-on-one time as possible. Want to capture it on film? Arrange for one of the resort’s videographers to document your dolphin experience. Time to Go: June to October offers the best dive conditions, but experiences can be had year-round. Operator: Anthony’s Key Resort, www.anthonyskey.com Price Tag: Four-night packages –– including accommodations, meals, three single-tank boat dives per day and shore diving during shop hours –– start at $509 per person. Insider’s Tip: Anthony’s Key can arrange a day trip to raft Rio Cangrejal in La Ceiba, home to some of Central America’s best whitewater rafting with rapids ranging from Class II to IV.
Red Sea, Israel
On the shores of the Red Sea is the unique Dolphin Reef Eliat, an ecological site where snorkelers and divers alike can get some serious one-on-one time with nine of the organization’s superfriendly bottlenose dolphins, who maintain their daily routine of hunting, playing, courting and socializing at the reef. Sign up for the 30-minute guided dolphin dive where a maximum of four divers watch as the dolphins interact with one another, while also coming in close contact with the group (touching or feeding the dolphins is strictly prohibited though). Time to Go: Year-round, but late spring or fall brings the most comfortable topside temps (think mid-70s). Operator: Dolphin Ref Eliat, www.dolphinreef.co.il Price Tag: The six-day dive package starts at $340 per person and includes transportation to and from the Dolphin Reef, a guide and two dives per day (one dolphin dive and one at a top site in Eilat). Book a room at Hotel Pierre (from about $50 per night, www.eilat-guide.com/pierre ), located on a quiet side street adjacent to Sderot Hatmarim, the main street in Eilat. Insider’s Tip: Take a day trip to Hai Bar Nature Reserve, home to biblical-era animals and birds (gazelles, antelopes, ostriches) and a Predator Center, which features wolves, foxes, leopards and striped hyenas.
Grand Bahama Island
Established in 1965, UNEXSO is the one of the world’s top operators for dolphin encounters. Lucky for you and me it’s on Grand Bahama Island, where white sandy beaches and magnificent coral reefs have drawn divers for decades. UNEXSO keeps its dolphin dive groups small, so you can maximize your bottom time with some of its 16 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins on a 30- to 40-foot open-water dive. You’ll not only interact closely with the dolphins (think getting mask-to-nose with the playful creatures), but also have it all caught on film by one of the program’s photographers. Time to Go: Year-round Operator: UNEXSO, www.unexso.com Price Tag: Dolphin dives are $219 per person, including tanks and weights. Insider’s Tip: Check out UNEXSO’s sister hotel, Pelican Bay ( www.pelicanbay.com ), which offers a four-day dive package –– including one two-tank morning dive, a one-tank afternoon dive, one dolphin dive and one shark dive –– starting at $502 per person, double occupancy.