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Pixar’s “Finding Dory” may be all the rage in movie theaters this summer, but nothing can top the thrill of getting face to face with Hawaii’s living sea creatures. Thanks to a number of ocean-focused programs around the islands, families can get acquainted with real-life versions of Nemo (clownfish), Dory (blue tang) and other denizens of the deep — sometimes just by wading into the water.
Of course, aquatic critters don’t actually talk like their animated counterparts, but in Hawaii they make up for it with their beauty and mystique. Following are some easy ways to get cozy with marine life in the Aloha State.
Ambassadors of the Environment, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua (Maui)Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famed marine expert Jacques Cousteau, designed this program to help people engage with their natural surroundings. Among its sea-related excursions is an introduction to snorkeling — great for families who have never donned masks and fins before. Kids-only outings include a beach and tide pool exploration and a hunt for Hawaii’s green sea turtles. Clients do not need to be staying at the Ritz-Carlton in order to participate.
Dolphin Quest, Kahala Hotel & Resort (Oahu) and Hilton Waikoloa Village (Hawaii Island)One of the world’s most beloved marine mammals takes center stage during these interactive encounters that appeal to multiple generations. From 15-minute dockside fun for tots to longer sessions for the whole clan, the meet-and-greets let participants touch, play with and smooch dolphins while learning about their unique qualities. Clients ages 10 and older can even sign up to be a trainer for a day.
King’s Pond, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai (Hawaii Island)More than 4,000 tropical fish and a few eagle rays make their home in King’s Pond, a 1.8 million-gallon lava-rock aquarium at Four Seasons Hualalai. Families can explore this remarkable setting in a number of ways, from snorkeling to floating on boards with built-in windows. Ongoing activities include fish and ray feedings and touch-tank demonstrations. Be sure to check out the Fish Circus, where kids ages 6 and up learn how to train fish to perform tricks.
Maui Ocean Center (Maui)This acclaimed attraction engrosses youngsters and their parents in all things aquatic during daily, hands-on pastimes. Naturalist presentations allow visitors to see, touch and learn about sea cucumbers, sea stars, urchins and more. At Turtle-rrific Thursday, guests find out about the Hawaiian green sea turtle, learning everything from its biology to its behavior. Families can also go behind the scenes to get the scoop on sharks and turtles.
Sea Life Park Hawaii (Oahu)Ever dreamed of kissing a sea lion? How about swimming with sharks? Clients can do both — and more — at this marine life park, offering a range of interactive pursuits. The Sea Lion Encounter captivates families as they learn how to communicate with the frisky, whiskered swimmers. The Shark Trek immerses participants in a 300,000-gallon tank for barrier-free diving with Hawaiian reef sharks and other animals. Additional park perks include dolphin swims and a reef encounter with sleek, gentle rays.
Waikiki Aquarium (Oahu)This may be one of the oldest public aquariums in the U.S., but it keeps fresh with sparkling exhibits and participatory programs. Visitors ages 4 and older can take part in educational activities such as the Critter Encounter, where folks get friendly with Hawaii’s reef animals. During the Night Reef Walks, the fish are sleeping, but families stay wide awake as they search for crabs, lobsters, eels and octopuses.