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We were handed wetsuits, more coffee much-needed , and then about 20 of us boarded a fast boat off the coast.

Small groups are vital so as not to disturb the dolphins too much, and we were of course given plenty of direction on what and what not to do, should we encounter a pod. After maybe half an hour, word came that there was a pod of dolphins just ahead of us.

We circled them, slipped on our masks and snorkels, and went over the side into the cold, cold water. We were incredibly lucky, amazingly so — within seconds we were surrounded by around a hundred dolphins, adults and young. These beautiful creatures swam all around us, coming up so close as to be within touching distance, not that we were allowed to reach out to them.

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They would look deeply into our eyes, as if somehow trying to read our thoughts. Inquisitive, playful and charming, they were not in the least bothered by our presence, and we were in the water with them for almost an hour before they moved on. We climbed back on the boat, watching the pod recede into the distance, their dorsal fins slipping out of the waves. Occasionally they would leap into the air, allowing us to take some fantastic photos framed by the still-low sun.

Is swimming with dolphins a good idea? | Science | AAAS

Slowly heading back, we made a diversion after a tip from another tour operator that there were humpback whales in the area, but we got there in time only to see the flick of a tail as our quarry disappeared beneath the waves. On arrival back at base, where yet more coffee and doughnuts awaited us, I felt like a changed person. The sensation of being among these beautiful, friendly and intelligent mammals had completely overwhelmed me. The exact same, life-affirming experience. If there is one experience I would recommend, to anyone, it is if you have the opportunity to swim with dolphins, do it.

While I was in New Zealand I bungee jumped, I took a skydive, and a white-water rafting trip, and loved them all, but nothing gave me such a rush as swimming with dolphins, and that feeling has stayed with me ever since. Feel inspired by this post?

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At Satayah there are no regulations, and the dolphins are repeatedly approached by swimmers and motorboats up to 9 hours each day. During our surveys, there were more swimmers a median of 13 at midday and fewer boats at Samadai. The dolphins typically rest in tight schools; they swim very slowly together and coordinate their breathing. That changes when the tourists arrive.

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Other studies have shown that when disturbed from their sleep, the dolphins do more leaping. We saw this, too. The Satayah dolphins made more aerial displays than those at Samadai. Some can be curious and a little friendly.

Swimming with dolphins

The welfare of the Satayah dolphins is clearly being adversely affected by the unregulated tourism. And the dolphin protection measures at Samadai reduce these negative effects. But whenever tourists arrived at both sites, the dolphins consistently changed from resting in small, tight groups to being active. The time limits and zoning system at Samadai, though, helped by reducing the daily tourism interactions by about half. Those at Satayah were surprised to hear that the dolphins were there to rest. They had no idea, and some of them were worried after they heard this.

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No, we never heard of the dolphins hurting the people. The most danger—to both people and dolphins—comes from the crowd of swimmers and the number of speedboats going back and forth at Satayah.

Swimming with dolphins – An experience I’ll never forget

Yes, but not as a tourist, as a researcher. For another study about the composition of the dolphin groups, we needed to build a photo ID catalog of the dolphins when they were underwater. They tend to be very curious about whatever is around them. Like people, some are more curious or friendly than others. We never forced any interactions; it was always up to them.

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They could be playful at times, but intimidating, too. Sometimes, adult males can be threatening. One made a very direct, frontal approach and then assumed an S-shaped posture, which is a threat.