Dolphin watching travel guide

Humans have long attributed divine qualities to these mysterious, marine mammals, who have been documented saving humans from drowning and sharks; as far back as ancient Greece, harming a dolphin was punishable by death. Anyone who has seen or swum with them in the wild will testify to their phenomenal intelligence, their curiosity and their ability to inspire happiness.
Dolphins are considered mystical healers, spiritual creatures; the subject of paintings, tattoos and jewellery.
Yet the majority of people who see these creatures today will watch them in dolphinariums – tiny swimming pools in which they are expected to perform circus tricks, day after day, in exchange for fish scraps. In the wild, these animals swim up to 65km each day, use highly developed fishing techniques and have strong social bonds. No matter how much they appear to “smile”, in our opinion a life in captivity does not make these creatures happy, and for a truly transcendental experience you need to get on a boat, head out into the open ocean and find out what really does cause a dolphin to beam.

Is a dolphin watching vacation for you?

Go on a wild dolphin watching vacation if…

...you wish to understand more about them. Captive dolphins are so far removed from their natural state, and will offer no glimpse into their lives, their habitat or their behaviour. ...you want to contribute to their protection. Many tour operators partner with conservation initiatives, and donate funds to local marine programmes. ...you’ve always been a dolphin fan. Seeing them in the wild is an experience which never disappoints. ...you want to experience an animal which some consider as intelligent as humans. However clever they really are, and whether or not their clicks and squeaks are in fact a language, getting up close to a wild dolphin convinces many people of their intuititive abilities, and changes our perception of “dumb animals”.

Don’t go on a wild dolphin watching vacation if…

...you are expecting them to jump through hoops. These are wild animals, and you’re in their territory – they will appear when they want, and act as they choose.
...you suffer badly from seasickness. The waves can be choppy, and being on a small vessel for considerable amounts of time can make the experience more uncomfortable. In places such as the Azores, it is possible to watch wild dolphins from land instead.
...you are going purely for the photo opps. These streamlined cetaceans are notoriously fast moving – and by the time you’ve pointed your camera at a jumping dolphin, they may well have gone! Spinners are probably the easiest to photograph as they spin through the air for long enough to capture.

Our top Dolphin watching Vacation

Whale & dolphin research in Ligurian Sea, Italy

Whale & dolphin research in Ligurian Sea, Italy

Whale and dolphin conservation trip

From 795 6 days ex flights
Small group travel:
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Dolphin watching or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What does it entail?

Wild dolphins are sociable, speedy sea-dwellers, so the experience you get on your dolphin watching tour is really dependent on them – and on the weather. While dolphins tend to be visible in the same areas year-round, many tours only operate during certain months in order to avoid cyclones, hurricanes and choppy seas – but with ever-less predictable climates, you’ll have to rely on your skipper or guide to determine departure times and trip durations.
Each dolphin species has its own unique behaviour – with bottlenose dolphins being some of the most friendly, dusky dolphins of the southern hemisphere being more outgoing and acrobatic, and spinner dolphins being some of the most exciting, as they twist their bodies through the air. Your approach, speed and distance will depend on the species – qualified, responsible skippers should know their dolphins and drive accordingly. Getting as close as possible or approaching from the front will scare the pod away, and ultimately deter dolphins from visiting certain areas – which disrupts their behaviour patterns as well as spoiling the experience for future tourists.
While experienced and knowledgeable crews will have solid success rates in tracking dolphin pods, knowing when and where to find them at different times of year, sightings can never be 100% guaranteed. These are wild, elusive animals after all. But where dolphins are found, there are also likely to be many other forms of marine wildlife in the same area: porpoises, turtles, seabirds and often whales. In Greece for instance, dolphin watching trips will often encounter colonies of monk seals as well.

Is it okay to swim with dolphins?

Some dolphin watching trips will also offer you the opportunity to swim alongside them. Responsible dolphin swimming trips should have a strictly enforced duration and number of swimmers – and no-one should be allowed to enter the water until the guide can tell the dolphins are at ease. This may be frustrating – but stressed dolphins will disappear immediately, rather ruining your experience. Never approach a dolphin, and do not touch them. If you are lucky they will come up to you – but this is their territory, nothing is guaranteed, and ultimately you are privileged to be here – so just relax, enjoy and learn.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jeremy Ricketts] [Go/don't go if: Sue Hixson] [What does it entail: NOAA Photo Library] [Swimming with dolphins: Dolphin Embassy]
Convert currencies