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.

These are spotted dolphins, not the same type as the common dolphins I saw. Photo: Oceanic Society

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for them, reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—and hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, Calif.

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 waters of British Columbia to Belize; from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean; from Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore.” But 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 cliff overlook, to no avail. (The lyrics are from the Jevetta Steele song in the movie, Bagdad Café.)

Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail to see their silvery backs streak through the water and watch them leap out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat, zipping beside, 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. 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 to me, and inviting me to play.

A Gift for the Dolphins

You can “adopt” Sunflower for a $40 donation to the Oceanic Society.

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 such a program. 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.

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I feel like fiction and life have come full-circle.

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”

(Originally posted: November 12, 2010)

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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