Swimming with Dolphins in Anguilla

dolphin flipper wave

Aischa popped out of the water and thrust her snout up to my cheek. She wanted a kiss. She held herself still in that position until I obliged by putting my lips on her face. Now happy, she tilted her head up and then slid down into the water and swam away.

dolphin kiss
Getting a kiss from Aischa the bottlenose dolphin.

I had never thought about interacting with a dolphin before; I thought that was something that would be more interesting for kids. However, on a recent cruise I signed up for a dolphin encounter excursion. I assumed it would be little more than a short photo opportunity in a big swimming pool where a dolphin would be confined like in an aquatic zoo. I was wrong. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

dolphin discovery
The beach and boardwalk at Dolphin Discovery on Anguilla.

The cruise ship stopped in St. Maarten and from there I sailed for an hour over to the neighboring island of Anguilla. After a short bus ride, I arrived at the Dolphin Discovery facility. These bottlenose dolphins live not in an artificial environment (e.g., a swimming pool) like at Sea World, but in a large fenced in area of the ocean. I walked on a long boardwalk out to the man-made lagoon and got in the water.

Scientists think that dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They’re highly social animals, living in groups (called pods) of up to a dozen members. They establish strong social bonds; they will stay with injured or ill pod members, even helping them breathe by bringing them to the surface to breathe if needed; and they have been known to protect swimmers from sharks. They are great communicators – by clicks, whistles, and other vocalizations, and by non-audible touch and posturing movements.

My guide’s name was Jose, and he was working with a young female dolphin named Aischa. Jose was a new trainer and he was still building up a rapport with the rambunctious teenager. Aischa had learned her dolphin encounter behaviors, but she sometimes disobeyed Jose and swam away to the other side of the lagoon to be with her boyfriend. Sounds just like a human being, doesn’t it?

happy dolphin
Aischa flipping into the air.

The dolphins at this facility were trained for at least four behaviors when interacting with guests.

The first behavior is the kiss. Jose instructed me to hold my hands together in a cupped fashion, extending my arms out in front of me. Jose blew his whistle and in response Aischa swam up to me and held her position with her head out of the water until I smooched her.

Next, I held my hands up high above my head. Aischa came out of the water vertically and, while balancing on her tail, waved her flippers at me. She seemed to be smiling and laughing at me as she nodded her head in unison with the flipper movements. It was so charming…

dolphin flipper wave
Doing the dolphin flipper wave!

For the next two behaviors I swam out into the lagoon. As instructed, I floated with my feet down in the water and held out my right arm while I put my left arm across my chest. On Jose’s command, Aischa swam in a circle around me until she approached me from behind. Right before she bumped into me, she flipped over onto her back and extended her flippers to either side. I grabbed on to the base of each flipper with my hands and away we went! She gave me a fast ride for about 10 yards until she started to turn back to her stomach and I let go. It was exhilarating to feel the strength of the animal as it powered through the water pulling my extra weight.

dolphin ride
Going for a ride on Aischa!

Finally, I floated with the upper half of my body on a boogie board. I straightened my legs, pointed my toes down and stayed motionless. Aischa swam around me in a circle again and approached me from behind. She pushed her snout into the sole of one of my feet and pushed hard. I shot forward like a cannon ball! She propelled me across the water for about 10 yards and then let go.

dolphin ride
Getting a big push!!

It is amazing to me that these animals like humans enough to cooperate with these behaviors. Of course, the sushi they get from the trainers as rewards help to persuade them.

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Three ways to visit Tulum

Caribbean Sea

I kept driving down the narrow road through the Sian Ka’an Ecological Preserve of the Yucatan Peninsula looking for a break in the jungle. I knew the Caribbean Sea was on my left. I could see glimpses of the water every now and then through the trees. After an eternity I came upon a sandy spot where the road widened slightly. There was a car parked half on the road, half in the brush. There was just enough room behind the car for me to park.

I got my beach towel and climbed a small dune. Ahead of me the turquoise water sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. The small waves crashed into the shore onto smooth sand. To either side, the strand stretched as far as the eye could see. Not a person in sight, I was like Robinson Crusoe discovering a beach paradise.

Tulum beach
A beach paradise south of Tulum, Mexico.

Until the sound of hip hop assaulted my ears from a boom box twenty yards away. A guy was lounging in the shade of an impromptu lean-to made out of sticks and fabric. He had a cooler of beer, snacks, a Speedo, and a little black Dachshund that followed him out to the water and yipped when the guy went under the surf.

Still, I was almost alone on an incredibly beautiful beach on the Riviera Maya. It was warm and the sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.

Caribbean Sea
The turquoise sea…. Natural… nobody cleans up the seaweed.

My first stop that day in Tulum was at the famous archeological ruins. The pre-Colombian Maya built a major port city on the site in the 13th through 15th centuries. The city, with 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, was situated on top of 40 foot high cliffs above the beach. Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of a “Diving” or “Descending” god. The people were probably wiped out by smallpox brought by the Spanish conquistadors.

As I walked around the site in an hour, I kept thinking of the movie called Apocolypto. Luckily, while I was there nobody got sacrificed or had their heart ripped out.

Mayan ruins
Some of the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

Next, I went into the nearby pueblo (town) for lunch at a traditional local restaurant. As I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, munching excellent taco chips and salsa, a smooth jazz trio played a tight groove behind me. It was a good change from the mariachi bands prevalent in the tourist areas. I was the only outsider in the place.

Fortified with a burrito and a local beer called Sol, I went in search of a Mexican beach to call my own. I drove down a road called Highway 109, which quickly degenerated into a narrow path into the hotel zone south of Tulum. The Tulum hotel zone is quite different than Cancun’s abomination of a hotel zone. Places to stay on this part of the coast are small boutique hotels, beachfront cabanas, and eco-camping spots. The place had a hippie vibe to it. It was the kind of place to hide away from the world for a while. Just turn off the cell phone, have a margarita and relax.

Tulum ice cream truck.
The Tulum ice cream man.

Unfortunately I wasn’t staying at any of those retro chic resorts. The properties were enclosed by fences, there was no parking, and no obvious public access to the beach. So I kept driving south farther into the preserve, hoping for a break in the fencing.

I drove until I finally discovered the only car parked along the Preserve road, and saw the path to the beach. It was worth the drive.

Tulum beach
A hidden beach below the Tulum ruins.

Millions vacation every year at the mega-resorts in the Cancun hotel zone. If you like a swim-up bar, noisy pool volleyball, multi-level marketing bonus groups from Sheboygan, and kids kicking sand in your direction, please stay there.

For peace and relaxation, and maybe a little isolation, head south of Tulum until you can find your spot in the sun.

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