Swimming and playing with dolphins in the crystal blue seas off the white-beached shores of Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience
At first glance there didn’t seem too much ‘dolphin activity’ to write home about as I lazily swam with snorkel and flippers off the coast of Honduras. Then the breathtaking sight of dolphins rising through depths shattered the calmness, as they brushed by - rolling, playing and chattering. While the older ones carried on their game across the bay, the baby member of the group doubled back, rolling and positively ‘smiling’ with laughter. The instructors’ advice is to swim on, not to ‘chase’ the dolphins, not to touch them and to allow them to swim around you. But it does feel like they want you to ‘grab a fin’ and join in.
Swimming and ‘encountering’ dolphins is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world and there’s no better place to take the plunge than the warm, clear seas off Roatan, one of the Bay Islands, in Honduras. While undergoing rapid development as a tourist destination and stopover for cruise ships, the islands still conserve a natural beauty.
Roatan, which is only 33 miles long and four miles wide, is still small enough to feel like a secret hideaway in the Caribbean. With its year-round warm temperatures, white beaches, palm-fringed shores and clear turquoise sea, the island also boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world. This makes diving and snorkeling big business, not least at the Roatan Institute for Marine Science at Anthony Key’s Resort. The resort is home to the Dolphin Encounter experience, which costs from $60, not including snorkel hire.
The experience begins with a boat ride to Dolphin Island, where about a dozen dolphins live in an enclosure. The dolphins often swim out in the ocean and have a clear escape route should they want one. The instructors, who speak excellent English, introduce the dolphins in an ‘encounter’ in shallower water – a bonding session on both sides as some of the shyer creatures are encouraged to take fish, swim by your side and even exchange ‘kisses’. This is the photographic and more ‘tourist’ element of the experience, but does put you at ease with the dolphins, whose size and power is not to be underestimated. I met Mr French, an ‘apprentice’ dolphin, who would have preferred to play with his mum than meet a group of pasty looking Brits – and who could blame him?
The self-respecting youngster bottled out at the ‘kissing’ humans stage, so off he swam and the gentle-natured Gracie took his position for the photo shoot. Important lessons are learned at this stage, including only touching the dolphins with a flat hand (as it’s very easy to hurt them) and to watch out for their tail and fins (as it’s very easy for them to hurt us).
Then the true experience begins, as the group and the dolphins swim out into the deeper waters, the humans cutting a sorry sight with flapping flippers and bobbing snorkels, as the dolphins dive and glide in circles. It was one of the most heavenly hours of my life, exploring the clear seas under the baking sun as dolphin after dolphin swam past and around. Some are friendlier than others, with a few adolescent males attempting to roll on top of the female swimmers who had caught their fancy. Some quick advice from the instructor to tread water upright for a few minutes and the rejected mammals swam off with no hard feelings.
All too soon, it’s time to leave and take fins and snorkel to explore the rest of the coastline. More proficient divers can take the dolphin experience one step further on a boat dive on the reef, accompanied by a dive guide, dolphin behavourist and videographer. Divers spend 45 minutes observing, photographing and playing with the dolphins in the ocean at depths of up to 60 feet.
Whichever option you chose, life doesn’t get much better than relaxing in a hammock at the end of the day reflecting on memories of playing with dolphins in a natural habitat.
There are no direct flights to Roatan from the UK. Fly via North America, with connections in Houston, Miami or Atlanta.
Where to eat
The Lighthouse Restaurant, on the West End peninsula (specialises in seafood).
Dolphin Cafe Restaurant, Anthony’s Key Resort.