By Léo Azambuja

Spinner dolphins in Hawai‘i. Photo by Claire Fackler/NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

Spinner dolphins in Hawai‘i. Photo by Claire Fackler/NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

I used to camp in Polihale quite a bit, usually a couple times a month, and sometimes I’d go there twice a week. Needless to say, I scored many epic days of surfing with no one else out but my friends and I.

But my best experience there so far was out in the deep ocean, far past the breaking waves, in the company of true locals, dolphins.

Growing up, I never got expensive gifts on Christmas or birthdays, and I never really cared about it. I was always more into the party than receiving gifts, though I must confess the Velotrol, a plastic trike, I got when I was 4 years old was pretty rad.

So for my 30th birthday, I decided I would go to Polihale and camp for as many days as possible. I took a week off work, and I ended up camping for five days without ever having to leave the place. Many of my friends came and left. Every day, there was someone different coming, and everyone brought food, beer and ice.

We’d surf all day, and at night we’d hang around a bonfire made of keawe wood, talking story and drinking beer. It was a pretty memorable trip. No cellphones, no TV, no Internet, no street lights. Just my girlfriend, my friends, my dog and lots of surfing.

On the fifth day at Polihale, it was my birthday. The plan was to spend one more night, just my girlfriend and I, and then go home. But my dog, a black lab mix named Luna, wasn’t doing so well. The heat from the last five days had really taken a toll on her. All of a sudden, getting Luna back home to safety and having a nice birthday dinner at Duke’s seemed like a pretty good idea. So we decided to leave that morning.

Spinner dolphins in Hawai‘i. Photo by Claire Fackler/NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

Spinner dolphins in Hawai‘i. Photo by Claire Fackler/NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

But not before one last surf session. The waves had been good all week. On the last day, they dropped considerably, but it was still surfable and super glassy. So Jeff and I paddled out for one last session before breakfast.

While we were out there sitting on our boards waiting for waves, we saw a long-haired hippy surfer paddle out past the breaking waves into the deep blue. He must have paddled as far as 200 yards offshore. We were wondering what he was doing out there. We had seen whales earlier, but they were even further out.

Then the guy goes nuts and starts screaming and splashing. We were puzzled, until we saw spinning dolphins going crazy around the guy. It all made sense. We paddled as fast as we could toward them, but when we got close, the dolphins were gone. The guy was so excited he could barely speak. We thought it was cool, yet we were pretty bummed we missed the whole thing.

Then all of a sudden, we saw another pod of dolphins coming toward us from the south. Unfortunately, they swam wide from us, continuing on their path to Kalalau. Out of instinct, all three of us started screaming, in some desperate hope the dolphins would pay any attention to us.

Well, they did.

They turned around, swam back to us and completely surrounded us in a tight circle. I still get chicken skin when I remember this. We were so stoked that we started clapping. And guess what? The dolphins put their tails out of the water and started clapping too. It was crazy. Then they started jumping and spinning.

Spinner dolphins are small and cute. They look like Jack Russells of the ocean, with their excited acrobatics. They were almost at arms reach, and every now and then, a couple of them would dive and swim right under us, checking us out.

Leo 1The whole thing lasted about five minutes. It was wild and crazy, and no money in the world could ever match what had just happened.

When the dolphins finally left toward Kalalau, we paddled back to shore — trying not to think about sharks — and headed back to the campsite. My girlfriend and a couple other girls had cooked breakfast and made some coffee. Jeff and I had the biggest smile on our faces. I remember telling them, “You’re not going to believe what just happened, we swam with dolphins!”

My girlfriend’s response was something like, “That’s cool, breakfast is getting cold, and we have to leave. Whatever you don’t eat just put in the trash.”

Jeff and I just looked at each other, and I said, “It’s OK, they would never understand, you can’t describe what just happened, they had to be there.”

And there it was, my best birthday present since that plastic trike when I was a preschooler.


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