Swimming with Dolphins Close to Home
No expensive tropical vacation on the calendar? No problem
Ever since my kids and I vacationed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island of Hawaii last year, I’ve been dying to swim with dolphins. Every day we watched other families frisking around in the lagoon, but it just wasn’t in our budget.
Then this summer my daughter and I were invited to participate in the Dolphin Discovery program at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California as their guests and we couldn’t accept fast enough.
What and where
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is located in the San Francisco Bay Area and the interactive Dolphin Discovery program is open to participants 52″ or taller who are confident swimmers. Kids 11 and under must be accompanied by a paid adult participant or observer.
Even though the park is only open seasonally, the dolphin swim is offered seven days a week year round at prices ranging from $125 to $190 (park admission not included).
When we went, the program began with a fun classroom session in which my daughter and I learned about the physiology and social lives of dolphins. We passed around a cast model of a dolphin’s jaw (presumably to teach us a healthy respect for their 80-100 sharp teeth), and learned how dolphins breathe, sleep, swim, give birth, and raise young.
Then the instructor outlined the two cardinal rules: 1) Don’t touch the dolphins until the trainers tell you to, 2) Don’t touch the dolphin’s eyes, blowhole, or mouth. We were pretty much bursting with excitement.
Next we were off to the clean but closet-sized changing rooms to wriggle into wetsuits and booties. It probably would have been funny if it wasn’t so incredibly frustrating. Somehow we hopped, stretched, and yanked our way into wetsuits that seemed two sizes too small.
There are no hairclips, sunglasses, jewelry or cameras allowed in the pool, so we left all this in a locker along with my wallet, camera, and iPhone. The locker didn’t actually lock, but the area seemed secure enough.
Dolphins at last!
The Dolphin Interaction Pool is far from private. In retrospect this makes perfect sense, since watching people swim with dolphins makes other people want to swim with dolphins. We felt a little conspicuous at first, but forgot the hundreds of observers as soon as we slipped into the water.
Participants were divided into groups of four and assigned a trainer who slapped the water to call a dolphin over to where we were standing on a shelf. First we got to greet, touch, and examine the dolphin. Then we each took turns sticking out a hand for a dorsal fin ride across the pool. This was the highlight of the day, even if I did get about two gallons of saltwater up my nose (photographic evidence at left).
Photographers were on hand to capture images of us dancing with dolphins, holding dolphins, and being kissed by dolphins. These were available for purchase afterward at the Kodak kiosk.
Swimming with dolphins is controversial. We loved swimming with them, but how do they feel about swimming with us? It’s hard to say. Ours seemed more than happy to go through the motions, but then again dolphins can’t frown. The frozen fish we kept tossing in their toothy mouths probably didn’t hurt either.
If you go
I’d advise scheduling your dolphin swim at the end of the day if you’re planning to visit the park, since other activities will pale by comparison. Also, leave jewelry at home because the lockers are in a secure area, but they don’t actually lock. Finally, if you can bring someone along to take pictures from the side of the pool, do it.
Don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area? Don’t despair. Here are some other places you can get up close and personal with dolphins: Discovery Cove (in Orlando, Florida), SeaWorld (San Diego, California and San Antonio, Texas), Miami Seaquarium (Miami, Florida), the Indianapolis Zoo (Indianapolis, Indiana)