The awesomeness of an ocean swim with wild dolphins.
I have only had wild dolphins intentionally swim to me and with me on two occasions.
The first occasion was in the late 1970s off Thistle Island in the Southern Ocean at the mouth of Spencer Gulf. There is a sheltered beach on the north side of this island, from which I swam out 200m or so to be a little closer to a couple of dolphins cruising around quietly. I didn’t know how they would react to my appearance, but I was confident the worst possible reaction would be that they would simply ignore me. My confidence was not misplaced. As I drew closer, they swam straight towards me. Then followed an unforgettable engagement as they slowly swam around me, under me, surfacing and diving near me. They made a variety of sounds which I could hear very clearly when my head was underwater. That swim is etched indelibly in my mind.
Fast forward 40 years and a bit.
This GPS track of yesterday’s ocean swim shows the corner of our bay at Apollo Bay where the beach meets the harbour wall. For years friends and I have swum varying distances from this corner to varying turn points, in all seasons and sea conditions and in all types of weather. The usual out-and-back course is a straightish leg going out to the north, and a similar leg coming back, sometimes with a curve in it following the arc of the beach. Dolphins are the explanation for the departure of this swimming track from the norm.
Over my years of ocean swimming at Apollo Bay I have seen stingrays large and small, many varieties of fish including tuna and barracuda, banjo sharks, a penguin, a sea snake, an octopus, Australian fur seals, dolphins, southern right whales and humpback whales. From time to time to my knowledge we have also been visited by mako sharks, blue sharks and on one occasion a 15 foot basking shark. There are numerous occasions on which I have been swimming when dolphins were visible in the distance, but there was no interaction of any sort. A forty foot southern right whale once showed mild and fleeting interest in me while I was paddling my surf ski, by swimming towards me, surfacing near me, looking at me and then silently sinking below the surface and moving on out to sea. I have also had seals do a lap around me and dive directly below my surf ski, but they never lingered. Those few exceptions aside, such sightings have not involved any form of interaction with the creature being observed.
But yesterday morning was different. There was very little wind, the sea was calm and there was no swell to speak of. It was overcast and about ninety minutes after low tide. As five of us walked into the sea near the wall to commence our daily swim, we spotted the unmistakeable lazy rising and falling fins of a small group of dolphins about 75m past the corner of the wall. Without any discussion the five of us started swimming out towards them.
As we got to within 25-30m of the dolphins, some of them swam directly towards us. Each of us repeatedly had the wonderful experience of one or a pair of dolphins gliding directly beneath us, at a depth of no more than a couple of metres. We were all floating face down, loathe to look up for a breath in case we missed the next pass. We were not disappointed. Suzie, who was first out to the dolphins, had a large adult dolphin swim under her and roll on its back and look at her. She was rapt. As the other 3 or 4 adults had a calf with them, we speculated later that this may have been the senior male of the group checking out the first visitor.
After swimming close to us for a period, the group of 3 or 4 adults and the calf would wander a little further out to sea then pause to continue playing amongst themselves, circling and diving and generally gliding about. We would then swim towards them again, and the whole scene of them swimming back directly towards us, then around us and very close to us would be repeated. We gave it away when we were 400m or so offshore and put our heads down and swam to shallower water near the beach. The dolphins headed out to sea.
It was a rare privilege to have these beautiful creatures choosing to be around us and seeming to accept us wanting to be close to them, even if only for a short time. What a swim this turned out to be. As I was leaving the water, the world seemed a brighter place than it did before this swim.
9 thoughts on “Swimming with wild dolphins, cool temperate rainforest, easterly seas, storm clouds and lightning”
John, clearly the dolphins in your orbit have not heard about social distancing. I read this post with a mixture of awe and not a little envy. You faithfully evoke the spontaneous thrill of the exchange. I feel the soaring of your spirit in your words. No surprise that Suzie was first out to the pod – she’s part dolphin in the water.
Some years back Georgie and I were given a Red Balloon gift “swimming with dolphins” in the bay off Sorrento. Yes, the dolphins were proximate, but it was somewhat manufactured and fleeting, compared to your bespoke experience.
As for the following icing on the cake content, I think continued social isolation (from Melbourne) is going to very agreeable to you and your readership.
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I consider it important at this time not to abandon or sideline experiences that make the spirit soar.
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Thanks for the very welcome diversion and reminders that the natural world is utterly oblivious to our current drama. Cheers, jo
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‘Welcome diversion’ is how I see these experiences too Jo. I thought a bit about whether I should publish this post (and the one that followed it) in these times. Thanks for your comment.
Oh my John what a privilege and so many you have experienced. I can not imagine being among all those amazing creatures. I have swam with dolphins in NZ it was an organised tour, there were only four of us on the boat, and only two of us going into the water. We were out at sea having come from Akoroa. There I was bobbing about in a black wetsuit, looking like a seal, up and down in the waves. When half a couple of Hector Dolphins swam up to the young lad and I. These are the smallest dolphins in the world. Their fin is shaped more like Micky Mouse’s ear. We knew we could not touch them, but one of them kept hitting my hand and chest. It was one of the most amazing memories and experiences. Another time, years before I was filling in time waiting for my then boyfriend who was working it was a trip and we were at COffs Harbour. There was a dolphin park there back then. I went in to see the dolphins I was the only person in the facility that day. So instead of doing the educational and show experience, I was standing chatting to the owner. I had my back to the pool and next thing I am covered in water and a dolphin I swear is laughing at me.
The owner than had me wash my hands and took me back to the pool and I got to meet a couple of the bottle nose dolphins that had been rescued and not able to be released. I was allowed to touch them, rub their backs which felt quite like very thick latex a bit like a wet suit, and then their tummies, OH my ( i feel you might be old enough to recall chamois leathers used to wipe windscreens in the day) Well their tummies felt just like a wet chamois soft and warm. The dolphins were amazing and I was able to spend several hours watching them and being with them. I was left a different person after that experience. There is something really incredbile about these creatures.
Thanks for sharing your up-close dolphin experience Tazzie. The NZ swim with the Hector dolphins sounds most memorable. I looked at some photos of this species – the rounded dorsal fin is very distinctive. Around here the dolphins seem to all have a pointed dorsal fin. I agree with you that there really is something incredible about dolphins.
They are the only dolphins that have this shaped fin John. They are so small compared to bottle nose dolphins. They have a lovely light blue grey band of colour.
I really love your posts