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As we slowly approached the pod of 50 or more spinner dolphins, they cautiously approached us. The captain brought the boat’s engines down to a slow temperate rumble as the bow bobbed up and down creating a wake. Suddenly, the spinner dolphins swam alongside our boat in a synchronized display of playfulness. We gently moved through the ocean as one; the spinner dolphins performing their most famous behaviors, surfing the wave created by a boat’s bow.
The Hawaiian Islands are known for Nai’a or Spinner Dolphins. Their name derived from the acrobatic displays above and below the water. They are known for jumping out of the water and soaring through the air, spinning as many as 6 rotations, before flopping back down. Using their mouths and pectoral fins, Spinner Dolphins pass leaves that had washed into the ocean back and forth in a game of catch. When swimming belly-to-belly they have the appearance of hugging and affection. They are the most playful of ocean mammals.
These spirited activities are performed before or after sleep. After a long night of hunting fish, the pod returns to clear water, sand bottom bays near the shore to rest. However, they repose very different from other mammals. They do so by “turning off” half of their brain, shutting off their sonar abilities. Required to periodically come up for air and check their surroundings, they rely on their eyesight alone at this time. This essential pristine water allows them to see predator sharks approaching from a distance. Huddling closely together, they become a united super organ of awareness while still being able to rest.
When we dropped our anchor, the Spinner Dolphins abandoned the boat’s wake to show off their incredible flips and dives. The boat crew reminded us to respect the dolphins, to enter the water lightly, and not to kick rapidly with our fins or dive aggressively towards them. Our subtlety paid off. Incredibly, the next view through our snorkel masks, 50 to 70 dolphins cavorting together in the clearest of Hawaiian waters, allowing us to share their world for a moment in time.