Pods of dolphins surround the Islands, and spotting them can be as easy as just getting yourself out in the ocean. They are wild animals, of course, and do not follow a schedule, but a catamaran sail off Waikiki will usually net you a sighting. Dolphins also generally make appearances shortly after sunrise on the West Shore and can be clearly observed from beaches like Makua and Makaha. And while they won't have the peppy music of Sea World in the background, their jumping and spinning is even more awe-inspiring when you realize they are just doing it as a natural part of their lives rather than for a reward.
Some tour operators offer opportunities to swim with dolphins, but keep in mind that these are federally protected marine mammals, so you should always follow the instructions given by the tour operator if you take one of these trips. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides specific guidelines for tour operators encountering dolphins through their Dolphin Safe program. The cost for dolphin encounters can be pricey and ranges from $130 for a chance to swim with wild dolphins on a snorkel cruise to $700 for getting in the pool with them as trainer-for-a-day.
Similarly, you can also swim with sharks, though you do so in a protective cage.
Dolphin Quest at The Kahala Hotel & Resort. This worldwide dolphin-encounter group has an Oahu location in the Kahala Hotel & Resort, where trained Atlantic bottlenose dolphins hold court in an enclosed lagoon at the center of the hotel. The Kid's Aquatic Adventure is a 90-minute session of feeding and interacting with sting rays and dolphins. For the adults, there is more variety starting with a 15-minute encounter and going up to the "Trainer for a Week" experience. The Kahala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave., Kahala, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96816. 808/739–8918; www.kahalaresort.com/Experiences/Dolphin-Quest. From $189 for a 15-min encounter.
Dolphin Excursions Hawaii. For those who are a little timid about entering these waters, this outfitter provides a tour with a naturalist guide to help alleviate your fears and provide great information about marine life. The company's three-hour Dolphin Adventure departs from Waianae Boat Harbor and includes round-trip transportation from Waikiki and Ko Olina. Waianae Boat Harbor, 85-491 Farrington Hwy., Waianae, Hawaii, 96792. 808/239–5579; 877/257–5579; www.dolphinexcursions.com. From $130.
North Shore Shark Adventures. "You go in the cage, cage goes in the water, you go in the water, shark's in the water." You remember this line from Jaws, and now you get to play the role of Richard Dreyfus, as North Shore Shark Adventures provides you with an interactive experience out of your worst nightmare. The tour allows you to swim and snorkel in a cage as dozens of sharks lurk just feet from you in the open ocean off the North Shore. They'll provide transportation from Waikiki for an additional charge. Discounts are available if you book online. If you go, go early: the sea is more calm and clear in the morning. Haleiwa Small Boat Harbor, 66-105 Haleiwa Rd., Haleiwa, Hawaii, 96712. 808/228–5900; www.sharktourshawaii.com. From $96.