STS Tour : Sharks & Dolphins all day!

Yesterday's tour was a beautiful combination of serendipity and accumulated ocean knowledge

Understanding your local ocean environment takes time; it can require months on the water, scouting locations, searching for wildlife patterns and learning which winds and swells will present ideal conditions. Considering our explorations span roughly 60miles of the Hawai'i Island coastline, it's taken 2 years for Jim & me to even sort-of feel like we have a foundation of knowledge about what to find / where, and we know there's still so much more to learn.

Our morning started off on a great note, Jim was captain and I was crew, we loaded our guests onto the boat and made our way out of the harbor, coming upon a pod of Spinner Dolphins right in the harbor channel as we left. We stopped for a few minutes and allowed our guests to view the pod from the boat while we shared information about the various unique behaviors of Spinner Dolphins. The harbor channel is too dangerous a place for us to put anyone in the water, so we soon left the dolphins and made our way North.

When Jim and I dreamt of hosting our own tours, we agreed that we wanted them to be much more "safari" style as opposed to the typical structured tour (i.e. Dolphin swim from 8-10, snorkel from 10-11, Finished). We want to get out on the ocean and operate a tour that has the flexibility needed for a proper adventure. We want the opportunity to find less-common and even unusual wildlife, instead of being limited to a specific species. Having the freedom to say, "Hey guys, it looks like (insert ocean animals) aren't in a great mood today, let's head offshore and see if we can find something else," is also highly important to us. If any animals appear stressed out by our presence, we'll leave and we hope our guests understand that the wildlife's wellbeing comes first. Each of our tours is unique to itself, no two are ever the same.

At the start of our tours, we always ask our guests to manage their expectations. There are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife. We don't let the animals out of the pen in the morning, we don't feed them, we don't train or habituate any of the wildlife we see. Having a good day on the water involves decent weather conditions, a sharp eye, good effort and a lot of luck. If everyone onboard is simply grateful  to get out on the ocean and have a nice day in Hawai'i, things can only go up from there.  So, when we were only 30 minutes into our tour yesterday and I spotted a large triangular dorsal fin emerging slowly from the water, our group erupted as I called out, "Hammerhead!!!" and directed everyone's gaze to the shark cruising along the surface off our port side.

Jim kept the boat about 45ft away from the shark, so as not to spook it. I quietly slipped in the water and told our guests to get prepared, just in case it stuck around. As I approached the hammerhead, it saw me and angled its body so that its dorsal was tilted my direction: a defensive maneuver that allows the shark to keep eyes on me while putting its dorsal fin and muscular back to me, protecting its vital organs. I stalled my approach and maintained my distance. I've come upon lone hammerheads in deep water a handful of times and they often dive quickly to evade company. My stall seemed to gain some of the animal's trust. It righted itself and continued to swim along the surface, keeping about 40ft between us. I signaled to Jim and had our guests slide into the water and meet up with me. The 8ft shark was shy around us, but didn't flee. When the shark eventually faded into the distance we returned to the boat and the smiles onboard were contagious.

A lone hammerhead fades into the distance.

I'd had my camera with me, but wide angle lenses are unforgiving when it comes to shy animals and to be honest, I wasn't concerned about the photos at all, I simply wanted to make sure our guests enjoyed seeing that beautiful shark. It's rare to have a hammerhead allow people that close. Considering this week is "Shark Week",  I was grateful to have the opportunity to give our guests a new perspective on an animal that gets a pretty bad rap in mainstream media.

We continued North and soon came to our next location, another spot where you can sometimes locate a shark or two. I hopped in the water and started slapping the surface with my hand, a trick that will often produce a curious Sandbar or Oceanic Black Tip Shark. With our guests under specific instructions to stay in a close group by my side, I slapped and slapped and slapped the water, hoping to see a silver-grey shape emerge from the shadowy blue below. 10 minutes later, I lifted my head and told my guests I was going to utilize a trick I've never had fail me yet: putting my camera back on the boat.

As a professional photographer, you become accustomed to always having your camera on hand; it becomes an extension of you and rarely do you let it out of your sight or leave it somewhere when there's potential for a photo. As the world seems to work, sometimes the most outstanding experiences occur when your camera is nowhere to be found, your memory card is full or your battery has just called it quits. Returning my camera to the boat has often yielded a moment where I wished I'd had it with me. So, I left my prized possession with Jim on the boat and began slapping the water again.

Sure enough, not even a minute later, a sleek shape emerged from below. A small Oceanic Black Tip hovered about 40ft below us, then a second, then a third. They slowly made their ascent, cautious and careful to not come too close. Within minutes we had 12 sharks at various depths below us. Some came within 15ft, others stayed a bit further down. The largest animal was probably 5ft in length, with the smallest being approximately 2ft. I could hear squeals of excitement through snorkels beside me and kept a careful eye on both my guests and our new friends. Sharks are smart animals; when they realized that the splashing they came to investigate wasn't going to translate into a meal, they soon lost interest and, one by one, drifted back down to the depths.

When we got back onboard, our guests were silent and I worried they'd been unimpressed by what they'd just witnessed. When I made mention of how quiet they were, one of them responded, "We're just processing how amazing that was - you have to remember, we don't see sharks everyday like you do. That was the coolest thing I've ever done!"

A pod of Spinner Dolphins sneaks up on our group

Feeling reassured, Jim & I decided to continue our journey further up the coast. We had finally warmed up in the sun and enjoyed a few bites of freshly cut watermelon when we found our next species: a pod of highly active Spinner Dolphins. Jim and I laid down ground rules for viewing the dolphins in the water : everyone stay together, don't dive down, don't swim towards the animals / allow the dolphins to approach you, don't splash and always "keep your head on a swivel" because dolphins often sneak up on you. Countless times, I've watched, as a client focuses on dolphins 20ft below them and completely misses the dolphin swimming within 2ft beside them. Our guests were attentive to our instructions and eager to get in the water.

You could hear the dolphins before you could see them. They were chirping, whistling and chattering amongst themselves. From the blue, several shadows appeared, advancing towards us quickly. Multiple Spinner Dolphins went zooming in all directions around us and, again, I heard the heartwarming sound of laughter and squeals through snorkels.

Over 100 dolphins swam around our little group. At one point,  a brand new baby dolphin - only just larger than a football - paraded past us. It snuggled up next to an adult's fluke and together they swam in synchronicity.
Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins glide gracefully with a newborn calf.

 As the dolphins moved beyond us and further up the bay, I marveled at the topography below. It was a site I'd never visited before and the shallow reef was absolutely mesmerizing. It would've been foolish to not take advantage of the situation and explore this new stunning location, so we told our guests to take some time and simply enjoy snorkeling around. They were free to dive down and view the various assortment of healthy corals teaming with multicolored fish below. 

"Kiko" is the Hawaiian name for the Pantropical Spotted Dolphin

I moved around the area, filming things that caught my eye and was focused on a particularly vibrant stretch of reef when I heard a loud whistle nearby. I glanced up and saw 3 dolphins approaching but they weren't Spinner Dolphins. Their bodies were more robust, slightly longer and their dorsal fins were much more sickle shaped than a Spinner's. The prominent white markings at the end of each dolphin's rostrum told me that this was a trio of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins. I rose to the surface in surprise as the three animals swam up to me and then sort of hovered in place. I'd never seen "Kikos" in such shallow water and they'd certainly never come this close before. Wanting to document this surreal moment every way I could, I switched from video to stills and called above the water to my guests to let them know I was with a second species of dolphin.

As the youngest members of our group met up with me, the dolphins did a wide circle around us and then approached again, this time accompanied by Spinner Dolphins as well. The whole parade of dolphins passed by once more and when the last playful dolphin moved on, we hopped back on the boat and made our way back to the harbor with hearts full of fulfilled wishes.


Popular Posts