We’ve all seen ads, offers, and the “experience of a lifetime” claims from snorkel tour companies and sea parks about having a chance to swim with dolphins. It’s really an attractive offer prospect, right? Dolphins are among the most intelligent, social, playful, and majestic creatures on Earth. The opportunity to actually be in the water with them is an experience that many would love to have. If it wasn’t so dang expensive. Personally, I have gone on 3 snorkeling tours in Hawaii (all on Oahu) where I’ve paid more than $100 per person for the chance to see, snorkel, and photograph dolphins in the water. Out of those 3 tours, only one actually produced dolphins and the encounter was so brief and in such cloudy water that, while an awesome experience, just didn’t live up to what I had hoped it to be. So, I had resigned myself that I would have to be a typical tourist and pay a few hundred dollars for a dolphin experience at a sea park. Then the AWESOME happened. I ended up being at a snorkel location on the Big Island of Hawaii during a 3 day trip where I was a 2 minute swim from a pod of about 8 Spinner dolphins. It was there that I swam, videotaped, and had my dream dolphin encounter for free. No guide. No crowd. No damage to the bank account.
Snorkeling with Spinner Dolphins at Honaunau on the Big Island
It was actually a chance encounter. I live on Oahu where I’m stationed as a Soldier (21+ years US Army) but I went on a 3 day “vacation” to the Big Island with my girlfriend while my buddy ran a Triathlon. He asked us to come to help pay for the rental car and hotel room. Who needs a reason to visit Hawaii at a discount price, right? We were in. The first day my girlfriend and I woke real early (0530 but didn’t leave the room until around 0700 due to what I call the “female get ready to go” factor) and had planned on going to the Captain Cook Memorial to snorkel there. It was, by reviews, one of the best places to snorkel in the entire Hawaiian Islands. However, due to scheduling conflicts with my buddy who needed the car to get the race registration system we needed to get back to the hotel by 11 a.m.-ish. So, we decided that we wouldn’t get as much out of snorkeling Captain Cook with the long hike to the location and the long hike back in that little amount of time. So we adjusted plans enroute to Captain Cook.
First, What is Honaunau?
We decided to snorkel what was my second choice location and the one that we had originally scheduled for the next day, Honaunau, or “Two Steps”. Honaunau or Pu’uhonau, is translated into “city, place or temple of refuge” and the location is actually a National Historical Park. According to the National Park Service website, Honaunua is this:
“A Furious Journey of Life or Death was Determined by the Gods Imagine you had just broken the sacred laws, the kapu, and the only punishment was death. Your only chance of survival is to elude your pursuers and reach the Pu’uhonua, a place of refuge. The Pu’uhonua protected the kapu breaker, defeated warriors, as well as civilians during the time of battle. No harm could come to those who reached the boundaries of the place of refuge.”
So basically, in ancient Hawaiian culture, if you broke the law you were most likely to be put to death. Unless you managed to avoid being captured and get to the place of refuge in order to reflect and meditate on your crimes. Pretty serious stuff. The reason why snorkelers and bay visitors call the location “Two Steps” is because the best entry location to the water is by black lava rock that forms a sort of step configuration. At the end of lava rock (which can get hot so wear water shoes of flip-flops), you can sit down on the first “step” and put on your gear while your feet rest second “step”. From there just push off into the water and you’re snorkeling.
Our Snorkeling at Honaunau
We got there early, like 7:40 a.m. We pulled up at exactly the same time as another group of 5 but other than that we were alone at the bay. It got really busy later, around 9:30-ish so the earlier you get there the better. Luckily, the group that arrived with us were regular visitors to the bay and that’s how we learned the entry way and the tips that shared above. The snorkeling at Honaunau is pretty awesome. There are varying depths of water, beautiful live coral, and plenty of fish and some turtles. Within 1 minute of being in the water, my girlfriend turned around and said through the snorkel: “Dolphins!” A short swim later, maybe thirty meters, we were AMONGST the pod of dolphins. They swam around us, the check us out, they played around us, and they even jumped out of the water. The best thing about was that as I was recording them with the GoPro you can actually hear them communicating and their noises of clicks and “beeps”.
Don’t forget. This was a completely chance and free encounter and you can do it to if you’re on the Big Island. From my understanding, the dolphins enter the bay in the mornings to rest and socialize after a night of hunting and feeding. So, yeah, they’re there most mornings and take off again at about mid-morning. To where, I don’t know. Plus, you get to snorkel one of the best spots on Hawaii and to experience a National Historical Park at the same time. It’s a win-win situation that, if you see dolphins as well, becomes a win-win-win! Best of luck and snorkel safe! -Snorkel Ken