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Swim and snorkel with dolphins in the wild at Sao Miguel, Azores

by Elisa Flitter Fever
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Swimming with dolphins in the wild was a long cherished dream, which finally came true in the waters near Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal last summer. After an earlier attempt at The Bay Of Islands (New Zealand) in 2001, I finally did it. Yes! And how amazing it was! In this article I will tell you all about my experience of swimming with dolphins in the wild at the Azores. And where else can you swim with dolphins?

Group of wild dolphins jumps out of the water New Zealand Kaikoura
Beautiful group of dolphins jumps out of the water

Childhood dream

We used to collect, especially my younger sister, all kinds of dolphin knick-knacks. Figurines, stickers, posters, etc. We found fascinating animals even then. When Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys was photographed with a dolphin, the ultimate childhood dream was born. I had to go swimming with dolphins one day. How wonderful is it that you can actually make the dream of swimming with dolphins, which you already had as a child and as a teenager, come true years later? One of the reasons I love to travel so much.

Common dolphin near Terceira swimming with dolphins in the wild Azores
Common dolphin near Terceira

Book tour

It was quite shortly before our trip to the Azores in early July when I discovered that you could swim with dolphins in the wild there! In the Azores, this is best done from Sao Miguel, Terceira or Pico. All three islands were on our schedule, so that offered opportunities.

Fortunately, we left just before the school holidays started, and my friend was less in the mood. That’s why I was able to book one last-minute place on the swim with dolphins tour. And from Ponta Delgada, the capital of the island of Sao Miguel. Fancy! I booked this swim with dolphins in the wild tour at Futurismo Azores. In the high season this is twice per day.

Swimming with dolphins in the wild... (photo Rita Candeias)
Swimming with dolphins in the wild… love it!

Swimming with dolphins in their natural environment is a life-changing experience. By listening to their sounds, we can better understand the beauty and intelligence of these creatures.

Visit Azores

When

My advice to anyone who wants this is: book a tour for swimming with dolphins in the wild – in the Azores or elsewhere – as far in advance as possible. And as early as possible during your trip. Don’t wait until the last minute. When I got there in July, they said at the Futurismo counter that the next spot wasn’t until September. So this is not something you can think of spontaneously, at least not in the high season with family.

It is not possible to swim and snorkel with dolphins in the wild in the Azores all year round. Swimming is actually mainly in July and August. In the spring it is not always possible in connection with the boy. That is why it is so good that there is always a marine biologist on board. He/she watches how the group of dolphin behaves and reacts to the swimmers. And checks whether there are no baby dolphins present.

Moreover, you should be aware that the Atlantic Ocean around the Azores is not exotically warm. The water temperature is approximately between 16 to 25 degrees Celsius (60 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit). Pretty fresh. Visibility is approximately 20 to 30 meters. With calm, sunny weather, the water can be as smooth as a mirror, although that can change quickly during the day.

Dolphin spotted at Sao Miguel
Wild dolphin in the open sea at Sao Miguel

Preparation

With a fear of heights and depths, I secretly looked up to it a bit. Swimming with dolphins in the wild in the Azores means that you have to jump into the open sea. It’s hundreds of meters deep there! Yikes. My sister, who had swum with dolphins in New Zealand, advised me to practice some underwater snorkeling beforehand, preferably in a wave pool.

Last year we swam and snorkeled with turtles, both at Akumal in Mexico and Klein Curaçao. And a few years before that he snorkeled with manta rays at Bali. Back home in The Netherlands I swim several times a week.

What beautiful animals they are dolphin that looks at you
What beautiful creatures they are

But I took her advice to heart. If only for my peace of mind. The Atlantic Ocean is very different from the Caribbean waters for instance. Fortunately I already had a nice snorkel set. On one tour you can borrow a snorkel set, on the other they expect you to bring your own. It could also depend on the COVID measures. I liked wearing water shoes as well.

In any case, on the Azores it is not the intention to wear flippers, only diving goggles and a trachea. Flippers could distract the animals in their natural behavior, according to our guide. The smartest thing is to put on your bathing suit, bikini or swimming trunks under your clothes immediately before you arrive at your accommodation. And lubricate well beforehand! On site, Futurismo Azores in Ponta Delgada has a room with showers and a toilet. But this is cramped and damp, so better arrive prepared.

Dolphin in the open sea at the Azores
Dolphin in the open sea at the Azores (photo Rita Candeias)

What should you bring when swimming with dolphins in the wild?

  • Underwater camera and/or GoPro
  • Lens cloth
  • Swimwear (on)
  • Snorkel goggles + air pipe
  • Your tour booking confirmation
  • Bottle of water
  • Cap or hat against the sun (wind resistant)
  • Sunscreen (preferably coral-friendly)
  • Water shoes (optional)
  • With long hair: scrunchie
  • Quick-drying towel
  • Shower items (optional)

If you really forgot something important; there is a Decathlon store on Sao Miguel. But stocks there are limited and things are often sold out, especially in the summer. There is a Sportzone shop on some other islands, where you can regularly score cheap sports shoes and clothing, but snorkeling gear is not always available.

Don’t forget to properly charge your waterproof camera and/or action cam beforehand. A group member found out on the boat that his GoPro did not work. He was about to cry, really super sad. You want to capture such a unique experience. My camera also went empty on the 3rd dive, but I didn’t mind that much. It is also important to simply enjoy yourself during such a dive.

Upon arrival

Make sure you are present about half an hour in advance and report to the ticket desk inside. There you will be asked to sign the rules of the tour. The tour starts with putting on a wetsuit. In the summer it has short legs and short sleeves.

Tip: don’t bring much more than that. A waterproof backpack is great if you have one. Or else put a plastic shopping bag or something similar around your bag. Water will get into the boat, which will otherwise make your bag soaking wet.

Swimming with dolphins in the wild is exciting and fun
Swimming with dolphins in the wild is exciting and super fun

Let’s go!

Our tour group consisted of two families and me. A total of 9 people plus guide Lucas. Together you walk to the rib boat. In the boat you sit as if you were on a horse. Before the boat sails, make sure you are actually ready to jump into the water. Underwater camera already around your neck or in your hand. And let’s go!

Due to the speed and the waves, the boat bounces furiously over the water. So you don’t have to do anything after departure before you’re ready to jump into the water. At Futurismo Azores we also received a life jacket and windbreaker, in case you are wet and might get cold on the way back.

The Futurismo boat for dolphin watching tours Azores
The Futurismo boat for dolphin watching tours
Futurismo's rib boat for the Azores swim with dolphins tour
The Azores ribboat for our swim with dolphins tour

First dolphins spotted

The first few dolphins have been spotted, time to get in the water! Now it’s really happening! Jumping into the water over the edge of the boat was a bit of a swallow. The water was quite cold, but luckily I got my breath under control pretty quickly. And go, look under water with diving mask and snorkel. I saw a few dolphins, for a moment it seemed as if they were looking at me. Great! Actually like a dream that flashes past you, because before you fully realize it, you are already back in the boat.

After about an hour and a half we had seen about five dolphins above water and about three dolphins under water. Nice, but that leaves room for improvement of course. There are many more dolphins out there, although they did not come our way for a while. Guide Lucas warned us in advance: “We are going to try to swim with dolphins.” There are never any guarantees. Because after all, they are wild dolphins.

Group of common dolphins spotted from the boat Azores swimming with dolphins
Group of common dolphins spotted from the boat

Tour organizations such as Futurismo work with spotters who look for the animals from the coast and tell the captains where they have to go. In fact, at some point they had told us: “Sorry guys, but we have to get back to port very soon, so probably this was it, sometimes it is like that.”

After sailing around for a while without success, the guide indicated that the spotter could no longer find new groups of dolphins on the coast. And that we would go back to the harbor. That’s the reality; after all, nature cannot be forced.

Swimming with wild dolphins at the Azores (photo credits Alexandr Lipov)
Wild dolphins in the Azores (photo credits Alexandr Lipov)

Group of dolphins in sight!

Until guide Lucas gets a spotter’s message over the radio that a group of wild dolphins had been seen a little further on. We quickly sailed there and yes, really dozens of them! So cool! We quickly jumped in and OMG, this is awesome! I really enjoy this.

I can’t help it but just feel myself getting emotional seeing and hearing all those dolphins around me underwater. Butterflies in my stomach, tears swelling in my eyes. I tend to talk to them. Jeez, what am I doing? I’m never like that… What a special experience!

Swimming with dolphins in the wild - how cool Azores
Swimming with dolphins in the wild – how cool is that?!

And this happened again a little later. We again encountered a group of about 25 dolphins all together. Always as the only boat there. And hop back into the water, head under water and enjoy. Dive number 4! During the 3rd jump my camera had already gone empty, but I didn’t care. I swam there with all those wild dolphins around me. Well, a few meters away. Dreams come true people! This is a bit different than swimming in the pool back home.

This video isn’t of the best quality, but hopefully it gives you an impression:

Dolphin species Azores

The dolphin species that you can encounter in the waters around the Azores:

  • Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis)
  • Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
  • Gramper (Grampus griseus, also known as Risso’s dolphins)
  • Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
  • Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)

Some of these dolphins remain around the Azores all year round, such as the bottlenose dolphin. While other dolphin species migrate and only visit the Azores during certain seasons, such as the striped and spotted dolphins.

Striped dolphin in action (Azores)
Striped dolphin in action (Azores)

You almost always swim with common dolphins in the Azores. The striped and spotted usually stay too far away from the boat. Gramper dolphins (Risso’s) are in principle not swam with.

In addition to dolphins, you can also encounter sea turtles, manta rays, angelfish and whale sharks when swimming in the open sea at the Azores. Do not be afraid; the latter are not common and the guide/captain pays close attention.

Risso's dolphins Azores
Risso’s dolphins

Swimming with dolphins in the wild – New Zealand

Somehow I always had in mind that swimming with dolphins was something unique for New Zealand. My sister Delaja swam with dolphins in the wild at Kaikoura in 2014. When I went to New Zealand again in 2018, unfortunately it was not possible to cram this into our tour. “Good excuse to go to New Zealand for a 3rd time” I thought back then.

But with a little searching you will soon find out that swimming with dolphins in the wild is also possible in other places in the world. Well, New Zealand is definitely worth a visit, with or without dolphins. But you don’t necessarily have to go to New Zealand to swim with dolphins in the wild.

Although the possibilities are decreasing, because the rules around swimming with dolphins in the wild are becoming stricter or even completely prohibited. More on that later.

Swimming with dolphins in the wild at Kaikoura, New Zealand
Wild dolphins at Kaikoura, New Zealand

Where on earth can you swim with dolphins in the wild?

This is possible in the following countries/regions, among others:

My stepsister Sonja proves that swimming with dolphins in the wild can be addictive. In recent years she has been going to Egypt at least once a year to swim with dolphins for a whole week. “It is always a wonderful experience to swim with them,” she writes in a Facebook post. And I totally get that!

Swimming with dolphins in the wild at Hugharda, Egypt
Dolphin in the open sea at Hugharda, Egypt (photo credits Kristina Loburets)

Is swimming with dolphins in the wild animal friendly?

That is a good question. And great that you even thought about it. Wildlife tourism is popular, but not all forms are animal-friendly. That you shouldn’t cuddle with a drugged tiger in Thailand, you absolutely shouldn’t do a trophy hunting safari in Africa, and you shouldn’t ride an elephant, that is fortunately clear to most sensible people these days. But who didn’t want to become a dolphin trainer as a child…?

There are plenty of tourist wildlife related activities that are more in a ‘grey area’. That may make you wonder: is this okay or not? Think of washing and feeding elephants, a ride on a donkey or camel after a grueling walk in the heat of Petra… Is that possible, or not? A kiss from a dolphin at Curaçao Sea Aquarium, I wouldn’t do that anymore with the knowledge of now. A question of progressive insight. The same story at Dolphin Cove in Jamaica, for example. Let the fins of a dolphin pull you through the water? Nope, wrong.

A wild animal is not on this planet to perform tricks. An elephant giving paws or a dolphin jumping through a hoop. We humans may like to see that, but it is learned behavior. That is not to say that a dolphin could not enjoy doing tricks at all. But most of all, every animal, just like humans, just wants to be free, out in the open sea. By participating in such activities and shows, you keep it going. Food for thought.

Dolphin at the Curacao Sea Aquarium
Dolphin at the Curacao Sea Aquarium

So pay attention

Take a good look at what kind of organization you are going to do the tour with, read reviews. With organizations that have a ‘no touch’ policy, you are often on the right track. Useful experiences are shared in good, active Facebook groups, for example about elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Organizations often sound like they ‘rescue’ animals, but that’s not always true.

You don’t want – I assume – to sponsor an organization or person that doesn’t treat the animals well and/or doesn’t respect animal-protective rules, right? Where animals are allowed to be touched, things are often wrong. Unless you go horseback riding or something, but of course those are not wild animals either. Keep your distance and observe the animals in their own natural environment where possible. When in doubt, I’d say don’t.

Dolphins glide through the water in the Azores... beautiful
Dolphins glide through the water in the Azores… beautiful

Swimming with dolphins in the Azores was a truly amazing experience for me that I never wanted to miss! You see most dolphins under water, it felt like a magical moment that released a lot in me. May you be part of their world for a while. Really different from dolphin watching. Both fun, but I personally think swimming with dolphins in the wild is a lot cooler.

The observant reader may have noticed that there are few photos of myself in this article. That’s right. Photographing wildlife is not easy and certainly not my strong suit. Still wanted to share my experience and tips. Thanks to my sister Delaja and friend Nancy, among others, I have been able to add a few beautiful dolphin photos to this article, to give a good idea of ​​what it is like to swim with dolphins in the wild. Many thanks to both!

Want to read more about the Azores? Then read the article Azores island hopping: 6 beautiful islands in 3 amazing weeks.

Soon I plan to publish more articles about the Azores and wildlife on this website. Don’t miss it by signing up for the monthly newsletter and/or by following the Flitter Fever travel blog on Facebook for example.


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Last Updated on 12/31/2022 by Elisa Flitter Fever

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