A recent visit to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, provided me with an opportunity to do something I had never done before: swim with dolphins. I had heard about this ecotourist activity and knew it had gained popularity over the past decade. My husband and I have friends with photos and videos of themselves and their children stroking and playing with these intelligent marine mammals in pools, marine parks, and shallow bays. Heck, even my mother-in-law has swum with dolphins. In her case, it was part of a metaphysical retreat in Hawaii. They exchanged vibrations, or something like that.
While all this saltwater frolicking looked and sounded like a certain amount of fun, swimming with dolphins still wasn't on my Top 10 list of priority activities for my week in Mexico. But when our traveling companions (a flexible and adventurous couple who had been willing to try everything WE wanted to do) suggested swimming with marine mammals, I figured, "why not?"
Captivity Vs. Open Ocean
Our first order of business was investigating the types of dolphin-swimming options available to us. Puerto Vallarta has a sophisticated tourism infrastructure ("No, I DON'T want to buy into a timeshare, muchas gracias for asking. ..."), so finding companies that offered this activity was easy. Differentiating between the various packages proved a bit more challenging.
One point of difference became clear very quickly: swimming with dolphins in captivity vs. swimming with them in the open ocean. At one end of the spectrum, dolphins are kept in a marine-park, saltwater swimming-pool environment: a prison, in other words. There, they are subject to the skin disorders and emotional problems such a situation can be expected to foster.
At the other extreme, tourists are taken to the dolphins' natural habitat and join them in the water to whatever degree the wild dolphins permit. Most commercially available options fall between these two extremes: semi-captive dolphins are held in a natural bay rather than a marine park, for example. Or, very popular around Puerto Vallarta, boats go to dolphin feeding areas and bribe the dolphins with food so they will swim with the tourists. (I am reminded of the problems created by tourists feeding wild animals in America's national parks; the animals become habituated to the unnatural food source and fail to learn the foraging skills necessary to survive the off-season. Don't even get me started.)
Call Of The Wild
It took the four of us exactly two seconds to agree that we wanted the dolphins in the most wild, natural uncontrived environment possible. The downside to this approach, of course, is that you might not actually end up swimming with dolphins at all. First of all, they might not be schooling where your guide hopes they are, and second, if you find them, they might not be in the mood to swim with you.
Those were risks we were willing to take.
We cast our lot with Wildlife Connection, a research group that has been studying the dolphins and whales of Banderas Bay for a number of years. The organization catalogs and identifies the mammals, tracking their movements to better understand them.
As it turned out, we were the only four paying guests on the boat the day we went out. A private tour! Just us, a driver, and a bilingual marine biologist guide.
My impression of Wildlife Connection is that they are a honest-to-goodness environmental science operation. In truth, I think they take tourists out strictly as a necessary evil to defray expenses. The boat, while perfectly serviceable, neat as a pin, and late model, offered little in the way of creature comforts. Its tiny, rugged gunwales were outfitted with safety and scientific equipment; the "regular" dolphin tour boats we passed dwarfed it. And, while our guide was pleasant and knowledgeable, her comments were relatively brief and largely scientific in nature. She was able to answer every off-the-wall question we threw at her. Much of the time, she peered intently at things beneath the water's surface and made notes in a logbook.
Before we left the dock, our guide gave us a mini-biology lesson, explaining some marine mammal facts and letting us touch flipper bones, teeth, and baleen (elastic plates that hang down from the upper jaw that serve as a strainer for food) the company had collected over the years. She showed us a logbook where details about several dozen individual dolphins had been recorded, along with their photos.
"We recognize them by their fin shapes and markings," she explained. "Here's Chewy, Sharky, Bobo, Miguel ... ." And she shared a few stories about their names. An hour later, having left the other marine tourist boats behind, she gave the driver a "slow down" signal. "It's Sharky, see?" And, indeed, it was.
Over the course of the next two hours, we saw several other named individuals. We saw 24-inch babies swimming alongside their mothers, squirming childishly to generate enough lift to JUMP! ... when and where Mama breached the water's surface. We got in the water three times. To be honest, only two of us actually saw the dolphins while we were in the water. But that sliver of experience made my day. We had been warned that the dolphins might or might not respond to our presence. If my companions were disappointed, I think all lingering regrets disappeared when we saw a crowd of splashing tourists bobbing in the water around an enormous boat on our way back. The tour guides were throwing dolphin food into the water.
Of course, the type of "swim with the dolphins" experience we chose would not suit everyone. Not only was the actual swimming less flashy than captive dolphin programs, the tourist accoutrements were pretty Spartan. Our "lunch," for example, consisted of a can of soda and a Quaker granola bar, the kind with "Chewy" emblazoned on the wrapper.
As we glided in our tiny research boat back to port, basking in the glow of our dolphin encounter and smiling tolerantly about our 4-ounce "lunch," our guide pointed to the wrapper of her own granola bar. "This," she explained, "is how 'Chewy' got his name."
Sally O'Neal Coates is a Pacific Northwest travel writer. Her outdoor adventures around Europe and North America have been chronicled in her weekly Sportsman's Guide column since 2000. For more information about Wildlife Connection, go to http://www.wildlifeconnection.com .