Story by Ashley Yeager
Photos by Elyse Butler
On a balmy December morning, a Minnesota couple on their honeymoon steps from the dock at Wai‘anae harbor onto The Spirit of Aloha. They’re giddy, and not just because they’re newlyweds. “We’re excited … wild dolphins!” the husband says to captain Doug Ewalt while he and three more honeymooning couples file aboard the catamaran. Their anticipation’s palpable, as if they’re about to see in real life some mythical creature they’d only read about. The Spirit of Aloha is the flagship of Hawaii Nautical, a family-owned company that takes visitors to sea for a glimpse of wild dolphins, whales and other marine life—one of many such tour operators in Hawai‘i. On this trip Ewalt doesn’t disappoint. Only moments after motoring the catamaran into the bay, his crew spots a pod of spinner dolphins off to port.
Ewalt cuts the engine and drifts. The spinners glide toward the boat, then ride ahead of its bow. “They’re familiar with me now. They know the sound of our boat and know we’re not going to get in the water with them,” Ewalt says. In that respect Ewalt is unlike most other tour operators. About half a football field away, another boat also sits idling, surrounded by about thirty people in the water. Swimmers dive, kick and thrash in a circus of fins, snorkels and fluorescent pool noodles. Some whistle to get the animals’ attention while others reach out to touch them.
For Ewalt scenes like these are both normal and disconcerting. His company is one of only five O‘ahu dolphin- and whale-watching tour operators that don’t allow guests to hop off the boat and swim with spinners. With a business model like that, Ewalt admits he and the other “watch-only” businesses face an uphill climb—obviously, people are hoping for that quintessential Hawai‘i experience: in-the-water close encounters with wild dolphins. Still, the dolphin-watching excursions are Hawaii Nautical’s best-selling tour. Ewalt estimates he takes about 8,500 people out on his spinner-watching cruise annually, and his operation is only one of twelve working off West O‘ahu. Twenty or so more operate off the Kona coast of Hawai‘i Island, where more than 75,000 people got in the water to swim with wild dolphins last year. “These encounters can be life-changing,” Ewalt says. But for whom?
Over the past forty years, scientists and tour operators like Ewalt have noted changes in the dolphins’ behavior, leading them to wonder how all the attention might be affecting them. “We used to see dolphins every day,” Ewalt says, “but now we’re lucky if we do.”