Close Encounters of a Cetacean Kind
Dolphins are some of the best-loved species of animal across the globe, a favourite of both divers and landlubbers alike. Here are ten great places (in no particular order) to find these wonderful creatures, sometimes passing by for a close inspection underwater, or frolicking around the boat on the way to the dive site
The Red Sea
Six species of dolphins are known to be resident in the Red Sea - the bottlenose dolphin, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, pantropical spotted dolphin, longbeaked common dolphin, Risso's dolphin and the spinner dolphin. And recently humpback dolphins, commonly found off the east coast of Africa, have been seen as far north as Marsa Alam. You can swim with a large pod of spinner dolphins that live at Samadai Reef near Marsa Alam (diving is banned and there are strict controls on where boats and snorkellers can access). And many a diver has tales of stunning encounters with curious bottlenose dolphins joining them underwater. Risso's dolphins - sometimes mistakenly called 'beluga' due to their round-headed similarity to the beluga whale - can be spotted from dive boats and liveaboards leaping out of the water.
There's a lot of big stuff found off the South African coastline, both east and west of the Cape of Good Hope, where the cooler waters of the Atlantic meet the warmer currents of the Indian Ocean. The long-beaked common dolphin and the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins can be found along the entire eastern coast of Africa, and Haviside's (or Heaviside's) dolphins in the cooler waters of the west. The ubiquitous bottlenose dolphins are found almost everywhere!
It can be cetacean soup around the Azores at times. Sperm whales hunt in the extremely deep waters just offshore and just about every other smaller cetacean can make an appearance. Large pods of short-beaked common dolphins are often seen and they adore riding the bow waves of boats. Expect to see Risso's, striped, Atlantic spotted, pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins. The only time they prove to be scarce is when the orcas and false killer whales sweep in and everyone hides from these voracious apex predators. Most encounters are made from boats, but lucky scuba divers have been buzzed by a variety of curious dolphins while underwater.
Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) in full flight (Photo Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock)
From the Atlantic Gulf to the Pacific Mexican islands, the waters around Mexico are famous for their dolphin encounters. During April and May each year, the Island of Socorro, some 370 miles off the western Pacific coast, is where bottlenose dolphins gather to mate, and one of the only places in the world where divers are almost guaranteed to encounter dolphins underwater.
The Bahamas – and Bimini in particular, only a stone's throw from Florida – are famous for resident populations of Atlantic spotted dolphins, which gather in the shallow, warm waters in the afternoons to play and socialise after a morning hunting in deeper waters. You can snorkel and free dive with pods of 50 or more playful dolphins happy to interact with us clumsy humans. A truly wonderous experience.
This isolated and lovely little island in the South Atlantic is a diver's dream. Dolphin spotting is an almost daily occurrence for the island's divers. Pan-tropical spotted dolphins are frequently encountered cavorting around the dive boats, bottlenose dolphins turn up regularly during dives, and their less common rough-toothed cousins are seen now and again.
Hector's dolphin, one of the world's smallest and rarest dolphins, is found around South Island, with a separate sub-species – Maui's dolphin – found around the western coast of North Island. Large pods of Hector's can be seen giving stunning aerobatic displays. Both are listed by the IUCN as endangered, and in the case of Maui's dolphin, critically so, with fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild.
A total of 13 species from the dolphin family (including pilot whales) are found around the Hawaiian islands, chief among the 'dolphins' are the spotted, rough-toothed and the playful spinners. Renowned around the world for their acrobatics, the spinners deservedly earned their name, twisting and rolling through the air as they follow the boats and, as is often the case among the big breaks of Hawaii, showing the surfers how to do it properly as they ride the waves in a way that only dolphins know how to do.
The Galápagos Islands are surely one the best places in the world to go to see – well – anything, really. As one of the most diverse marine habitats, at least 24 different species of cetacean are found in their waters. Bottlenose dolphins, common, Risso's and spinners are all common to the region, and pan-tropical dolphins and their exuberant displays popular with visitors. Pan-tropical spotted dolphins are often found swimming with shoals of yellowfin tuna, which led to a decline in their population through by-catch, although the transistion to 'dolphin-friendly' tuna fishing has seen them become one of the world's most populous species of dolphin.
UK & Ireland
Yes - the waters surrounding the UK are home to a healthy population of dolphins, often mistakenly thought of as tropical animals. According to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, there are at least 24 different species of cetaceans encountered around the UK and Ireland and 12 of them are listed as 'common'. Those species named 'dolphin', not including pilot whales and orcas (which are also technically dolphins), include bottlenose, common, Risso's, white-beaked and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.