Originally posted November 2010

At last I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.

While on an Island Packers cruise to the Channel Islands National Park, I witnessed wild dolphins for the first time. Photo: Island Packers.

You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the cold waters of British Columbia to the warm seas of Belize: no dolphins. From the Caribbean to the Mediterranean: no dolphins appeared to me. fFrom Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos Islands to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins. I was beginning to think I was cursed, despite a life-long adoration of the sleek animals.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore” Yet when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent. For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and ocean-cliff overlook—to no avail. (The lyrics I still sing are from the Jevetta Steele song in the 1987 movie, Bagdad Café.) Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for the glorious marine mammals and reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—all while hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, California. Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail as their silvery backs streaked through the water and watched them leap in and out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat and zipping beside us, in front of, and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!

I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. And anyway, I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.

The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello and inviting me to play.

Supporting Wild Dolphins in Their Natural Habitats

In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer these types of programs.

You can “adopt” a wild dophin for about $40 a year from the Oceanic Society, a nonprofit that works to protect ocean health and oceanic species. Photo courtesy Oceanic Society

For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve “adopted”—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals. (The Oceanic Society works to connect people to the ocean and to build a movement dedicated to solving the key ocean problems of our time: plastic pollution, unsustainable fishing and aquaculture, and climate change. Its goal is to improve ocean health by addressing the root cause of its decline: human behavior.)

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I was fascinated by the survival story of a young, Indigenous girl stranded on the island of her birth after the rest of her people were forcibly relocated to the mainland by white missionaries. (It’s loosely based on a real story.) One thing I loved about the book was how close the fictional girl, Karana, was to the ocean and her island, and how she survived by learning to hunt and fish. That connection to the natural world—and to dolphins—inspired me.

Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher

What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.

For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”

The glorious Channel Islands off the California coast. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Showing 9 comments
  • Cindy Morris

    Clearly you have been kissed by the magical ones!
    What a blessing!
    I have seen wild dolphins in a bay off the big island of Hawaii.
    I was snorkeling, one came right up beside me and I almost passed out, forgetting as I was to breathe!

    • Laurel

      Wow! I almost forgot to breathe once when a sea turtle came up to me in Hawaii. Now that I’ve been introduced to dolphins perhaps I will encounter them next time I go snorkeling. Fingers crossed!

  • Carol Apple

    Laurel – You should come to Virginia Beach more often! I’ve had the pleasure of seeing dolphins jumping a playing there several times when boating with friends and it’s always a thrill. They will often follow the boat. Here in Suffolk Virginia I have all the wildlife sightings I can stand – possums, bunnies, snakes, turtles, and deer that come within a few feet and stare at me. I’ve even seen several black bears running around. I think what I’d really like to see is white winged horse! Now THAT would be wild.

    • Laurel

      Yes, I should come to Virginia Beach more often, but up until this sighting, I figured I kept dolphins away with my jinx.

      A white, winged horse…that would be an exotic wildlife find. If you see one, let me know!

  • david

    I got to see Dolphins while snorkeling on my own on the reef in Belize–no package tour, no paid day-trip, just the right juxtaposition of myself and these two dolphins playing. A truly serendipitous moment. ‘Course at first I thought they were sharks, and that my time was up…

    • Laurel

      Yes, dear brother! Sibling rivalry certainly reared its head when I heard dolphins snorkeled with you in Belize—a year after I stayed on the same little island. Seeing dolphins from the boat is not as exciting as snorkeling with them, but now that my dolphin curse is over, I’m hoping for more encounters with them (and not with sharks)!

  • Kathy Kaiser

    There is something magical about dolphins. I’ve seen them in Washington, alongside the ferry.
    My favorite recent wildlife sighting was a moose running into Cub Lake in Rocky MOuntain National Park, kicking up water like a little kid.
    The only large wild animal I haven’t seen in Colorado is a mountain lion, so I’d love to see that, although maybe on the next ridge over.

    • Laurel

      I too would like to see a mountain lion, although sometimes they are too close for comfort–there have been sightings of them just blocks away from our house, and our neighbors think they had mountain lion scat in their yard last summer.

  • Sandy

    My feet are cold and I am dreaming of warmth and sun and tropical seashore life.
    When I lived on Maui back in 1976, I sailed with some friends from Maui to Lanai (about 9 miles). We stopped in deep water, threw an anchor overboard, and swam to shore. I dove into the water and was overjoyed to have landed amid a small group of dolphins. They continued swimming around us but did not get close enough to touch. But there I was, surrounded by them.

    I have also been sailing in the Caribbean, sitting way out on the bow, with dolphins diving and surfacing right in front of me. They shoot into the air and spin and then splash back into the sea. Ah the beauty and healing powers of nature!

    So you have one more dream checked of your life list! Hope you have many more.

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