Without question the ultimate fantasy of visitors in Hawaii would be swimming with the dolphins in the wild. Fantasy is the key word here as in practice this is fairly rare (with the possible exception of off the leeward coast of Oahu) although certain activities provide encounters with dolphins in resort pool settings.
Though actually swimming with them is fairly rare, finding them and seeing them and enjoying their manuvers as they swim, surf, dive and jump off the wake of your boat is extremely common. It is for this reason that dolphin watches and dolphin excursions which offer information on dolphins are very popular in hawaii.
Known for their inshore habits, playfulness around vessels and star performances at oceanariums, bottlenose dolphins are probably the most popular of all cetacean species. Adults range in size from seven to eleven feet in length and weigh between 600 and 850 pounds. Their backs are medium gray, their sides are lighter gray and their bellies are white or pink. Offshore animals are darker in color than those found inshore and sometimes appear to be less interested in swimming along with boats.
A few thousand bottlenose dolphins are believed to inhabit the waters around Hawaii, usually living in groups of two to fifteen individuals. Most of these groups are permanent residents of certain coastlines and harbors, and are therefore easy to spot.
Spinner dolphins are the smallest of Hawaii's common dolphins. They are generally between five and six feet in length and weigh 130 to 200 pounds. Hawaii has its own subspecies that is easy to recognize by its distinctive "three-tone" color pattern which consists of a sharply defined dark gray "cape" on their backs, a stripe of lighter gray on their sides and a white or pink belly. This species gets its name from its spectacular habit of leaping high into the air and spinning several times on their tails before falling back into the water. Researchers are not sure why the dolphins spin, but most people who have had the opportunity to watch the dolphins don't seem to care, and find it a real treat. Around Hawaii, spinner dolphins congregate at night in large herds in the deep channels between the islands to feed. During the day, they break up into smaller groups and come near shore to rest and play. A few of the places where they can commonly be seen are in Kealake'akua Bay on the island of Hawaii, off the Leeward Coast of Oahu, on the southern boundries of Maui and off the coastline of Lanai.
The life cycle of dolphins is similar to that of other cetaceans. As mammals, dolphins bear live young, and the mothers nurse them on milk and provide care. A dolphin calf is born tail-first with eyes open, senses alert and enough muscular coordination to follow its mother immediately. At birth, the mother helps her calf to the surface to get its first breath. While nursing lasts between one and a half to two years, the mother will remain with her calf for a period between three and eight years. As there is some variation in the age at which sexual maturity is reached, the reproduction rate and the life expectancy among the different species of dolphins vary. Most species tend to bear one calf every other year or so during their reproductively active years and are believed to have an average life expectancy of about thirty years.