“ Enjoy a day getting to see or even better, to swim with dolphins, sea turtles, penguins, and more! „
"Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason." Douglas Adams
If you were asked what one thing you would like to do before you die, what would you chose? Well, if you are anything like the 20,000 respondents to a recent BBC poll asking this very question, you would be likely to answer "swimming with dolphins" - this was the number one answer given, beating other experiences such as scuba diving around the Great Barrier Reef, seeing the northern lights, whale watching, flying in a fighter jet and exploring Antarctica. It was undoubtedly in my wish list of top things I wanted to do, and when the opportunity presented itself during my recent trip to Hawaii, it was too good a chance to turn down. Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to experience swimming with dolphins, as the seas are richly inhabited with eight species of them, the most common being the bottlenose and spinner dolphins, and as a result it is a very popular activity for visitors to the islands. Prior to leaving home we had thoroughly researched the options online, and found that a boat tour to swim with wild dolphins would set us back around $200 each, and of course contact could not be guaranteed. Cheaper boat trips were on offer where you just watched dolphins, but this was something I had already experienced; while magical, I wanted to get a bit closer this time. Unfortunately, the price tag put the opportunity of both of us swimming with wild dolphins out of the question as it would simply stretch our budget to the point where it would prevent us doing some of the other things we had planned for our trip. This was where the Sea Life Park came in, as an option to swim with dolphins that we could afford a bit more easily.
"Is This The Way To Waimanalo?"
The Sea Life Park is located on the windward side of O'ahu on Makapu'u point, near the town of Waimanalo. It is easily accessible from the tourist hub of Waikiki via the number 23 bus (which is conveniently marked "sea life park", runs frequently and picks up along Kona Street) and will cost you a mere $2 for the 40 minute journey. If you are driving it, the park is on highway 72 and has a decently sized free car park. I would recommend you take the bus if you do go, though; Hawaii has excellent public transport provision that is very easy for visitors to use, and it allows you to relax and savour what is a very scenic journey along the south east coast of the island.
While the park may now operate as a visitor attraction, it started life as a research station into marine life and conservation; the tourism venture developed around the research base as a means to both support it and educate the public. Situated between the dramatic Koolau mountains on one side and Makapu'u beach on the other, the park is in a very dramatic location, but one where it has not had space to develop greatly. When my guidebook noted that the park was small, I rather thought it meant small compared to the huge sea life centres you find in mainland America, but no - it is just small. The central attraction is the open-air ocean theatre where daily shows are performed with dolphins and penguins, but we found upon arrival that this was closed for renovation. While we had come with the primary aim of swimming with dolphins, had I been a regular visitor this would have been very disappointing as there was no indication that the main attraction was shut at the ticket booth, you only find out once you have paid and entered. Without the theatre being open, there is not a great deal else to see and do at the park unless you are a small enough child to gain access to the play area or are prepared to spend more money taking part in one of the activities for sale; there were a few small enclosures with a handful of penguins, sea lions and green sea turtles (known locally as honu) and a reef tank exhibiting tropical fish, but that is about it. There was also a "touch pool" but this was inexplicably empty. I started to watch the show being put on with the sea lions, but felt so acutely embarrassed at seeing the poor creatures being encouraged to sing and dance for laughs that I left before the end (seriously, where is the educational value in that?). I enjoyed seeing the honu close up as they are a symbol of Hawaii and I'd heard a lot about them, but found the rest of the park sadly empty and bit shabby looking, with peeling paint and not much in the way of facilities. The cafe looked so poor that I skipped lunch and at $3.50 for a small bottle of Coke, found the most expensive soft drink I saw anywhere in Hawaii. However much you like marine life that is a lot to ask if you have coughed up $29 for each adult and $19 per under-12 to get in (roughly £21 and £14 respectively at the time of my visit).
The park makes most of its money from the activities it sells, allowing visitors ("guests") to make contact with the animals. These packages are offered at set times (usually three times for each activity from what I could see) and you can either book in advance through the website, or turn up on the day and pay then if any places remain. The activities do have restrictions on age (which varies) and pregnant women cannot do any for health and safety reasons. There are three different packages for swimming with dolphins, as well as activities with sea lions and rays, and a "sea trek" in a diving suit where you can walk through the Hawaiian reef tank mentioned previously. But the real purpose of my visit was the dolphins. All of the dolphin activities last for 45 minutes, and the more you pay, the more behaviours you experience with them - all of these packages do include the entrance to the park, which does somewhat improve the value for money factor. The basic package is the dolphin encounter, costing $99 per person, which allows touching the dolphins and experiencing the "dolphin kiss". The next package up (which we bought) is the dolphin swim encounter at $165 per person, which included deep water interaction and a belly ride along with the kiss. The premium package was the dolphin royal swim, that also gave you the experience of the foot push, where the dolphins jet you across the water on your feet, and which cost a massive $215. We chose the dolphin swim encounter as a way to get a guaranteed dolphin swim whilst leaving room in our budget for the other excursions and activities we wanted to experience in Hawaii.
"I Kissed A Dolphin, And I Liked It"
We presented ourselves at the activities desk at 11.30, 15 minutes before our activity was due to begin, and were immediately handed waivers to sign. Only when we had committed ourselves to not being able to take any action against the park should we injure ourselves during the course of our activity were we allowed to actually take part in it; apart from reflecting the perhaps justifiable American paranoia about litigation, you have to remember that even tame dolphins are immensely powerful creatures, and such an activity is not 100% risk free. We signed. Having now satisfied themselves that we were not going to indulge ourselves in the modern custom of suing for the slightest inconvenience, we were allowed to proceed through to the waiting area with a small group of other people to watch what appeared to be an interview with Jodie Foster that had been filmed in the park. Slightly later than advertised, a cheerful member of staff came to take us to our induction. As we walked, we politely enquired as to the availability of changing rooms, as our swimming costumes were in our bags rather than under our clothes - it appeared they were in the opposite direction and we should have been told to go there and get changed first (nothing had been mentioned at any point about this, so we had to excuse ourselves along with a couple of others in our group to go and get changed, thus missing the first part of the induction we had paid so much for).
I should at this point mention what the changing facilities were like. Expecting something akin to swimming pool facilities, we found they were actually a small group of outdoor MDF huts with no floors and the lockers that we had paid extra to access (another $5 for a padlock so we could safely stow our things during our swim) were so tiny that they were all but useless to most visitors. Accepting that the padlock was a waste of money and we would have to lug our things around the activity with us, we went to get changed. To be allowed into the pool with dolphins, you should be in a swimsuit with any loose items that could harm the animals (hair clips, watches, jewellery, etc) removed - glasses are allowed, but the risk of damaging them or losing them in the pool is significant, so we thought it best to do without. The outdoor facilities were fine in the climate that Hawaii has, although they could have been a bit better maintained; they weren't particularly clean and the door locks had broken on several of them. We also found afterwards that the showers (which you really need to use for hygiene purposes, apart from the fact you risk smelling of a curious mix of brine and dolphin pee if you don't use them) were cold water only, and I really thought some soap could have been provided for the amount of money we were paying.
Newly kitted out in our swimmies and squinting slightly from the loss of our specs (not a pretty sight, but I'm sure both dolphins and staff have seen worse) we rejoined our activity group, having now missed most of the introductory talk. The activity took place in a private section of the park, in what the staff referred to as the training pool - this was basically a pool filled with sea water that had two deep areas at either side with a vertical drop-off from the shallow middle section rather than the inclines you get in swimming pools. I was rather dismayed to note that the pool looked like it had seen better days and was noticeably covered in that green stuff you get in fish tanks that aren't cleaned very often. Hoping we has not missed anything of too great an importance, we donned the buoyancy vests that are a compulsory part of such encounters - my initial snugness at being automatically given one labelled "small" being somewhat wiped away by my realisation that the vests are clearly not rinsed off between dips - and were divided into two groups. To say at this point we were all shivering quite a bit might seem odd, but the park is based on the windward side of O'ahu and so is cooler and breezier than the sunny beaches of Waikiki, and the day was a cloudy one anyway. Now wearing soggy vests we all felt those breezes quite markedly and rather hoped the pool would have heated water.
Each group had a trainer assigned to them, and we in turn followed them down the steps into the (unheated) water and along the shallow platform, where the water was about 3 feet deep, until the two groups were at opposite ends of the pool, each facing one of the deep water areas on either side. From this vantage point I also felt my first stirrings of discomfort concerning what I was about to do (I mean other than the physical discomfort of the cold and the slimy feel to the bottom of the pool). Part of this was admittedly nerves about getting up close and personal with such a large and powerful animal, but mostly it was the sight of two dolphins in what was not that large a pool being petted in return for food. Our first introduction to the dolphin (ours was called Kekaimalu) had our group standing in a row as she gently swam past us and allowed us to touch and stroke her. This was repeated a few times, allowing each of us a chance to feed her fish afterwards as part of the "positive reinforcement" the trainers use (for the record, a dolphin unsurprisingly feels slippery and smooth to the touch). The trainers for their part were very friendly and knowledgeable, and clearly loved the animals they were working with; every effort was made during the session to tell us about the animals, and to promote the importance of looking after the seas and marine life. Importantly for me, they were reassuring when asked whether intelligent animals liked being treated in this way...although I would hardly have expected them to say otherwise, really.
The first "behaviour" we were to experience was the "dolphin kiss". This is where the dolphin sits vertically in the water with her head sticking out, and we took it in turns to approach and bend down to her so she could gently tap each person's cheek with her beak - this is the classic moment where a member of staff takes your picture as it looks so darned cute (and they can then sell it back to you for $20 of course...so I could become the proud owner of a picture of my new husband in a compromising position with a she-dolphin). The second behaviour was the big one for our activity package, the belly ride. One at a time, we were instructed by the trainer to swim out to the far part of the deep water area and just float in our vests with right arm extended and left hand on right shoulder. Taking this position was a signal to the dolphin to swim out to us and give us a belly ride. As the first in my group to try this, I had not much idea what to expect. The dolphin swam behind where I floated, and then suddenly popped up underneath me, swimming on her back. As instructed, I grabbed on to her pectoral fins and let her tow me across the pool, back to my group; the speed and power in the animal was quite exhilarating (and provided another photo opportunity). However, it also gave the opportunity to write a sentence I will likely never again get to use: I got a bruise on my foot from the dolphin's tail (that'll be why I signed that waiver then). The final part of the activity was the "deep water interaction", where we were each given a snorkel mask and swam back out to the deep area to try and watch the dolphin swim beneath us. I say "try" because catching a glimpse of a dolphin moving that fast underwater is hard - doing it whilst wearing a buoyancy aid that is designed to stop you being able to put your head anywhere near the water is almost impossible.
"Is There Something Fishy Going On Here?"
As I left the pool to go and get showered and changed, I reflected that while I had just done one of my all-time wished-for activities, I didn't feel as happy as I would have expected. While it was wonderful to have met and swam with Kekaimalu - had I in fact done a good thing in contributing to her stay in the park?
On the surface, swimming with dolphins in captivity seems like good thing to do - I did learn about them, and in that short period of contact felt an increased sense of wonder and appreciation for these magnificent creatures. I suppose that in a way ticks the "education" box. Dolphins seem to smile and their chattering noises sound playful to our ears as they take us for rides (although whenever I hear those sounds I can't help but wonder if in fact they are actually warning us about our own impending doom, as Douglas Adams suggested) and this, perhaps mistakenly, gives us the impression that they are content to behave like this. But the small size and poor condition of the training pool troubled me, and since returning home I have come across a recent review on Trip Advisor where one visitor claimed they were bitten during an attempt to catch a belly ride, which suggests at least one of the dolphins has become very stressed by the conditions it lives in. I have also since discovered that the "positive reinforcement" training technique is a nice name for keeping the animal hungry so they will perform and thus be rewarded with food. This is perhaps not surprising - there is no reason for a dolphin to perform tricks if it is not rewarded with something it wants, and not that dissimilar techniques are used in the training of dogs. The crucial thing for me, though, is that dogs are bred to be domesticated - dolphins are wild animals. Where does this leave me? I paid my money thinking I was getting an educational programme that raised funds for conservation work and to treat injured sea life, but I was concerned that despite the high amounts of money the park charges for everything, the animals seemed to be kept in less than ideal conditions and they may not be as happy with human contact and interaction as their trainers suggest.
"Sea Life, The Universe and Everything"
The Sea Life Park was unfortunately a big disappointment from my trip; it was really not what I expected it to be, was over-priced, run-down and tawdry, and I felt sorry for Kekaimalu and her fellow creatures. I can accept organisations like this where there is more good gained from education and conservation than there is bad from holding animals captive (Chester Zoo springs to mind as a really positive example), but my impression was that this was not one of them. For an organisation that claims such a strong educational purpose, where were the interpretation boards and wildlife talks that you would reasonably expect? Why was there so much emphasis on taking money from visitors and so little information about what would be done with the money to benefit the sea life it claims to serve? I'm unsure where my money went, but it didn't seem to be benefitting either the animals or the visitors.
Had I known then what I know now, I would probably have not gone to the park, I felt it was a waste of a precious half-day in Hawaii that could have been put to better use - and I wouldn't feel like I was a horrible person for exploiting that dolphin. Yes, it was fun to swim with her and an experience I'll remember, but not entirely for the right reasons. What if you chose not to participate in the activities? Well, then you will still be spending a lot of money to see and do very little, so it is just not worth the effort of going there. If I was to do it again I would either find the extra cash for the boat trip to see wild dolphins or have spent the time snorkelling in nearby Hanauma bay where I could have seen some of these creatures in the wild and for a lot less cash. If you are going to Hawaii I would not suggest visiting the Sea Life Park, spend your time enjoying the natural wonders of the islands instead.
Opening Times: 10.30am to 5pm daily
Address: 41-202 Kalanianaole Highway #7, Waimanalo, Hawaii 96795 USA