Dolphin Quest

Exciting, educational and a good way to make some new (finned) friends

By: Marty Wentzel

WAIKOLOA, Big Island When I was a little girl, my favorite TV show was “Flipper.” Maybe it was Flipper’s inscrutable smile, or that funny laughing sound dolphins make, or maybe I was just impressed with how darn smart he was. So recently, when offered the opportunity to experience a dolphin encounter, I jumped at the chance. I’ve sat on the sidelines and watched other people wade into the Hilton Waikoloa Village’s dolphin lagoon, but no amount of studying or writing about the Dolphin Quest program could prepare me for the thrill of finding myself nose-to-nose with these exceptional creatures.

Dolphin Quest runs a variety of encounter programs daily; some geared to children, others to adults, and still others for families and friends to enjoy together. I signed up for the 30-minute Adult Dolphin Encounter.

Donning an obligatory life jacket at the start of the session, I overheard a participant bragging about his scuba expertise.

“Heck, I’ve seen plenty of dolphins in the wild during my dives,” he said loudly. “I’m just doing this to please my wife.”

Splitting into groups of four or five people, we prepared for our intimate encounter with the resort’s Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Three women and I gathered around an enthusiastic Dolphin Quest trainer named Dawn, who kept the conversation lively as she shared facts about these unique mammals and the environmental issues affecting them in the wild.

After wading into the water, a silver figure glided toward us and turned over on its back with a grin. It was our group’s dolphin, Shaka.

“Go ahead, reach out and rub his belly,” said Dawn. “He loves that.”

Sure enough, as we stroked his stomach, which surprisingly was smooth as soft leather, Shaka closed his eyes.

Dawn taught us hand motions that trigger dolphin responses, and then let us try them out on Shaka ourselves. Talk about a rush. A flick of my wrist sent Shaka off to the far end of the lagoon, where he leapt majestically into the air. I floated on my back and kicked with my legs together, while Shaka did the same maneuver right next to me.

Dawn helped us explore the flukes, flippers, dorsal fin, rostrum and other parts of Shaka’s body, while he patiently obliged. Then, wearing snorkel masks, we floated on our bellies, thrilling to the sight of Shaka speeding like a bullet underneath us.

Hamming it up for our group, Shaka demonstrated his musical talents, clicking, chuckling and singing through his blowhole. We each took a turn posing for the Dolphin Quest photographer with the handsome beast, who then waved a fin and swam away.

Before getting out of the water we met Makana, a 10-month-old dolphin born in the lagoon. Playful as a pup and half the size of an adult, Makana threw water at us with his snout while his patient trainer tried to teach him simple tricks.

The dolphin encounter was more than just splashy fun. Dawn packed an impressive amount of information into her half-hour banter. For instance, each dolphin makes a signature whistle, and they can hold their breath under water for a whopping 10 minutes.

Dolphin Quest emphasizes marine conservation, so there was plenty of information about how we can do our part. Clients who balk at the high price of a Dolphin Quest encounter should take heart: a portion of the payment goes to the Pacific Marine Life Foundation.

Clients of all ages get a kick out of Dolphin Quest, which explains why it’s imperative to book a session well in advance. The children’s programs pack lots of humor into the educational experience.

For adults, the dolphins serve as an icebreaker. Participants who come together as strangers share an amazing experience, resulting in a natural bond.

The half-hour session went by too fast. We shed our lifejackets and gathered around computer monitors for the instant gratification of seeing our encounters as digital photos, available for purchase as prints.

Once again, I overheard the scuba-diving guy who earlier had pooh-poohed the adventure. Within the span of 30 minutes, his demeanor had changed from boastful to boyish.

“That was fantastic,” he said to his wife. “That just made the vacation!”


Dolphin Quest Hawaii
Hilton Waikoloa Village
69-425 Waikoloa Beach Dr.,
Big Island, HI 96738

Dolphin Quest opened at Hilton Waikoloa Village in 1988. The Kohala Coast resort’s four-acre manmade lagoon serves as a model habitat for dolphins that live, play and reproduce free from the threats they face in the wild.

During 30-minute sessions in the lagoon, clients interact with the magnificent marine mammals. Longer programs combine a dolphin encounter with activities in the Dolphin Quest Seasational Lab, where clients learn about conservation and the Hawaiian marine ecosystem.

Rates range from $130 per person for the 1.5-hour Dolphin Discovery children’s program (ages 5-12) to $320 per person for the four-hour Animal Training Adventure.

In Hawaii, Dolphin Quest is also offered at Kahala Mandarin Oriental on Oahu.

Reservations for all Dolphin Quest programs can be made on-line two months to the day in advance.