Not that I have an actual list. But if I did, I’m pretty sure swimming with dolphins would be at the top.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was small.
I love the ocean. I love cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises). But I had one problem.
I hate seeing these intelligent creatures in captivity. As much as I want to see them, I could never go to a marine park. Seeing them in pools or tanks would just break my heart.
So I jumped at the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins in Japan in their natural habitat.
There are over a hundred Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in residence around Mikura-jima. They are slightly smaller than common bottlenose dolphins.
Dolphin swimming tours run from April-November. Allow some flexibility in your schedule as tours are weather dependent.
How to get there
I stumbled across the possibility of swimming with dolphins at Mikura-jima almost by accident.
I had already ‘planned’ (I use the term loosely) a trip to the Izu Islands. The inspiration for this trip was visiting the remote Aogashima(青ヶ島).
While researching other islands in the chain, I came across a mention of swimming with dolphins at Mikura-jima.
The closest island to Mikura-jima that is accessible by ferry from Tokyo is Miyake-jima (三宅島).
Once you have made it there, you have two options:
You can stay on Miyake-jima and take a half day trip out to go swimming with the dolphins, and then return to your accommodation.
Or you can take a small boat over to Mikura-jima and find accommodation there. This option would be best if you plan to swim with the dolphins several times.
We opted to stay on Miyake-jima and took a tour from there.
How to Book
I cannot give enough praise to Japan’s tourist information offices.
We called the Miyake-jima Tourist Office to enquire about dolphin swimming tours. In response, the guy actually drove to our guest house so I could make the booking and pay in cash. He made everything so easy.
See the Miyake Village tourism website for contact details.
Which tour company did we use?
Our tour was run by Dolphin Club Miyakejima. They were brilliant. They even let my friend who couldn’t swim join me on the boat for no extra cost.
The tour cost ¥14 000 and gear hire was ¥2000.
I took the tour on our last day on Miyake-jima. They fitted the tour around the departure time of the ferry back to Tokyo.
We were picked up from our guest house at 7am and taken to the diving company’s guest house. Here I changed into snorkelling gear. We were taken to the harbour and the boat left around 8:00.
The boat trip out to Mikura-jima takes about forty five minutes. It’s a bumpy ride.
The boat stays close to the island looking for dolphins for around ninety minutes. We entered the water with the dolphins three times. I’d estimate that we swam for about ten minutes each time. This would be dependent on the behaviour of the dolphins on any given day.
Then it’s another forty five minutes back to Miyake-jima. There was time to get changed and have a shower. Then we were dropped off at 12:30 in plenty of time to board the ferry back to Tokyo.
What are the requirements for swimming with dolphins at Mikura-jima?
You must be a confident swimmer who is comfortable in open water. You must have been snorkelling at least three times before, or they will ask you to take a snorkelling lesson.
The dolphins spend most of their time swimming at a depth of about 20m. For this reason, it is suggested that you will have the best experience if you are able to freedive to get closer to the dolphins.
Don’t let it stop you though if you can’t freedive. I stayed snorkelling at the surface and it was still an incredible experience. The main pod swam serenely below me with dappled light on their backs. That image and feeling of wonder will stay with me forever. Individual dolphins swim up to the surface to breathe so you will still get to see them up close.
There are a few rules you must follow out of respect for these wild animals:
- Turn off the flash on your camera
- Don’t feed the dolphins
- No touching the dolphins
- Don’t chase after the dolphins
If they are feeling playful then the dolphins will approach you. Remember, you are a visitor in their home, so be respectful.
Keep an eye out for other wildlife. The first time I got in the water I saw a sea turtle! (I’d only ever been snorkelling on British beaches so for me, this was as exciting as the dolphins.)
There were a few mishaps
Watch out for jellyfish!
There were loads of small jellyfish in the water. As no one seemed concerned, I wasn’t either. Until I got stung climbing back on to the boat.
It felt like an electric shock and left a stinging red streak on my skin which went away within thirty minutes. I was being tended to when the dolphins showed up again. I was immediately cured and jumped straight back into the water!
If you are worried about jellyfish, you could invest in a pair of diving gloves.
Don’t overestimate your sea legs
How bad can a forty five minute boat ride be?
I spent most of the return journey simultaneously deliriously happy and hunched over a toilet bowl. It was an interesting combination.
Totally worth it but I will remember the sea sickness tablets next time!
Don’t trust waterproof phone cases
Due to a series of events that I try my best not to think about, I forgot to bring my underwater video camera on the trip.
I invested in a waterproof phone case in an attempt to fix this error.
When I tested it in the hotel, it worked like a charm.
However, as soon as I jumped off the boat I discovered that the screen was completely unresponsive when submerged in water. Which is less than ideal for an underwater phone case. It didn’t leak though, so my phone was kept safe but useless.
The morale of the story is: always test your equipment in a realistic environment, not in a hotel sink. The case would be useful if you just wanted to keep valuables with you when swimming.
I spent a few minutes frantically trying to get it to work before I realised something. I was completely missing out on the experience that was unfolding around me. Once I gave up on the phone, I felt a great sense of calm and was able to simply enjoy what was happening. That malfunctioning phone case had something to teach me.
These were the only two shots I got, taken involuntarily as I jumped off the boat. The second one reminds me of my attempt to capture the Milky Way at Aogashima!
Luckily I had a cameraman on deck to capture the dolphins from above the waves:
All too soon, we were heading back to Miyake-jima
No matter how much time I had spent there, it wouldn’t have been enough.
I left in a bit of a daze. The whole thing felt so surreal. Over the coming weeks I often paused to remember that image of sun-speckled backs in the water.
The magic of swimming with dolphins at Mikura-jima will stay with me for a very long time. I’m grateful that I was able to live in the moment, enjoy the experience, and carry those memories away with me.
But next time I will remember to bring my underwater camera!