Did you know that dolphins are attracted to people singing? Neither did I until I got chatting to my friend and journalist Niki Waldegrave about her experience swimming with dolphins in Nelson Bay about two and a half hours drive from Sydney. Thankfully she was so thrilled with her day out with the pointy-nosed ones and Dolphin Swim Australia she said she’d write it about it for me…so, here goes.
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Can You Really Swim With Dolphins in Sydney?
Not in Sydney itself – although you might see them, and meet lots of other marine mammals.
You can do Whale Watching tours from Sydney during whale season (May to November) and sometimes you see dolphins alongside the whales.
You can also swim with sharks at the Sydney SEA LIFE Aquarium (see more here), but they don’t have dolphins.
You might, if you’re very lucky, even spot Benny the Seal behind the Opera House. But, again, he’s not a dolphin.
So, if you want to swim with dolphins as part of a trip to Sydney, you’re going to have to take a short mini-break to stay in Nelson Bay, Port Stephens about a 2.5-hour drive north.
There’s no getting around this as, not only is it the closest place to Sydney to swim with wild dolphins, it’s the only place in New South Wales were you’re actually allowed to swim with them as part of an organised tour.
The experience of swimming with dolphins in Port Stephens is organised by Dolphin Swim Australia – and they come highly recommended.
What Makes Dolphin Swim Australia Different?
The main difference is that Instead of ‘swimming’ in a chlorinated pool with dolphins in captivity, the Dolphin Swim Australia Port Stephens Dolphin Swim sees you entering the dolphins’ world, offshore, in the crystal-clear waters of the Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park.
Here, hundreds of curious short-beaked common and oceanic bottlenose dolphins swim past you, under you and over you within touching distance.
But they do it because they want to, not because anyone is feeding them or has trained them to do so – no wonder Ecotourism Australia refer to it as the experience where dolphins swim with humans rather than the other way round!
It’s the only swim of its kind – you cannot do this anywhere else in the world.
So, what did Niki think of her dolphin swim?
The Port Stephens Dolphin Swim
‘My first thought was blimey it’s early.
You meet at the crack of sparrows at d’Albora Marina in Nelson Bay ready for a 5.00am departure on-board the 15.8-metre catamaran. Manager Adam Wiltshire, a blonde Harry Styles lookalike – much to the joy of all the females on-board – reveals how his job is “a dream come true”.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” he smiles as we don our wetsuits and get onto the boat. “We get to spend the best part of the day on the water, surrounded by dolphins. They’re so friendly and curious, and some of the pods will stay with us for hours, other times we might swim with several different pods a day – and they love a good singsong.”
Yep, There’s Singing
Matty Maccabe, one of the swim assistants – and DSA’s unofficial Mr Motivator – claims “the louder you sing in the water, the more dolphins will swim to you”.
“It’s true,” he says. “By their very nature they’re sociable and curious creatures, so we start making some noise when we see them, and if you can keep singing loudly when you get in the water, they’ll flock to you.”
As the sun rises and we motor away from land, the guests tuck into the complimentary onboard tea and coffee while the crew run through the safety instructions and let us know what to expect from the day – in a nutshell, five-to-six hours of exhilarating fun.
“Although we have had lots of tears,” laughs Adam, who is also a certified PADI divemaster and qualified SSI freediver. “Some people get really emotional, and others have jumped overboard the minute they see their first dolphin. But the best way to do it is relax and take it in your stride. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to jump in with them, we’ve never had a day where the dolphins haven’t wanted to play.”
Once we get out into the bay, we are surrounded by what looks like thousands of dolphins, in pods of various sizes in every direction as far as the eye can see. They’re swimming in front of us, around us, leaping out of the water, and riding the bows of the catamaran.
As everyone scrambles to grab cameras and phones, Matty runs to the front and starts singing and shrieking, asking which of the six groups they’ve put us into wants to go first?
Showtime, We’re Up!
While the run-through of showing us what to do – put your mask and snorkel on and shuffle down into the net at the front of the boat, before jumping into the water on the count of three, turning around and holding on to a rope stretched between the two bows of the catamaran as it is moving along – sounded easy enough, it’s a bit clumsy in practice.
As we’re poised and ready, one girl cracks a nervous joke about sharks – not ideal when someone else on deck begins singing the Jaws ‘der-der’ theme tune, but we’re off, one big splash and we’re in!
Under the water, the first few seconds are daunting as you get your bearings, try not to swallow any water in the snorkel and realise the boat is going reeeeaaaaallly fast… and then ‘whoosh’, what was that?
I’m on edge of the group, on the outside far-right and within about five seconds I see them, maybe 20-or-so dolphins of all sizes swimming with us. Under us, in front, next to us. One is swimming so close to me with its calf I feel like I could reach out and touch it.
I try, and have visions of being swept to the back of the boat and made into mincemeat by the propeller. Yeah, might not do that again!
All the while we’re doing this, Matty is making as much noise as he can under the water and signalling us to sing. I crank out Oasis through my snorkel– you never know, right?
Suddenly another dolphin swims right up from under me, shoots in front and poos in my face. Chunderwall, more than Wonderwall – there’s a first for everything!
More dolphins join us in the water, which is crystal clear for maybe 20 metres or so around us.
The sun’s rays filter down through the water and it’s very calm and celestial, despite the ‘singing’. It’s actually very emotional, especially when you can hear the dolphins singing back, and some of the same ones keep coming in for a closer look.
We spend about 20 minutes in the water with our new friends, and then as the dolphins start to lose interest, we hop back onto deck for a cuppa while we find the next pod for the second group.
Is It Really Okay to Do This?
As I said, while there are other places to see dolphins near Sydney, the Nelson Bay dolphin swim organised by Dolphin Swim Australia is the only place you’re allowed to be in the water with them.
The reason it’s approved is that it is totally natural. If the dolphins don’t want to play they don’t.
The experience is endorsed by Tourism NSW, The Marine Parks Authority NSW and NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service who granted Dolphin Swim Australia’s permit after stringent examination of its swim protocols and safety management, and Dr Carol Scarpaci, a leading authority and government adviser on dolphin and whale tour-boat operations, monitored Dolphin Swim Australia for three years.
Her research showed unprecedented levels of compliance by DSA with Australian laws and regulations, confirming the never chase or harass the dolphins, and that no harm comes to any of them as a result of the swims.
“The key is finding dolphins who genuinely want to play,” explains Adam as we spot a large pod. “Those ones are following that trawler – they’re hungry and hunting food so they’re not interested in us. But look around, there are plenty more.”
How Much Does it Cost?
The four-hour trip is suitable for those aged 7-70 and costs $349. You can also purchase your customised underwater video for $65.
DSA can’t guarantee you’ll meet the Port Stephens dolphins on each trip so offer free return trips to those who might miss out, but to date, they’ve not had to cash them in.
To book your swim, click on this link and choose the date you want to visit. Then pick the swim option.
I’m Not Sure I Want to Swim, Can I Still Go?
You can also just book a dolphin-watching experience with Dolphin Swim Australia which is a lot cheaper than the actual swim – and, if once you get on the boat you get FOMO you can upgrade to the swim.
Book that here and make sure you click the observer option.
Where to Stay the Night Before Your Dolphin Swim
As Niki said, the swim starts super early in the morning and so you’ll need to stay nearby.
The dolphin swim and observation experience pick up at d’Albora Marina in Nelson Bay, Port Stephens.
One of the best-rated hotels closest to the marina is the four-star Hotel Nelson.
They have a pool – and also family rooms which is great if you’re travelling as a group for your dolphin swim. It’s also right next to the Little Nel cafe which we’ve been told is one of the best places to eat in Nelson Bay.
You might also want to check out the, aptly named, Marina Resort which also scores highly in reviews.
This four-star resort has a pool, the upper floor rooms have views of the sea and all rooms above the ground floor have balconies so you can chill out the night before your early start.
What Else Can You Do in Port Stephens
There’s a lot to do up here. We haven’t done an official Port Stephen’s destination guide yet, but you could easily spend a week up here and not get bored. Here’s a few highlights…
Visit Tin City and the Sand Dunes
One thing absolutely not to miss is the nearby Stockton sand dunes – 32 km of shifting sand that has to be seen to be believed.
We visited here recently to check out an amazing sight called Tin City and try some sandboarding – have a look at our review of that here.
It also includes suggestions of lots of things to do in and around Anna Bay including camel rides and petting sharks!
See Some Koalas
Port Stephens is also a good place to try and spot koalas in the wild. Tilgerry Habitat Reserve is one of the best places to try – but if you want to guarantee sightings then you’ll want to visit the Port Stephen’s Koala Sanctuary. See more details here.
Book a Mystery Picnic
You can also book a Mystery Picnic in Port Stephens. This sees you solving clues to pick up different food items that then make up your picnic. We’ve tried this in Sydney and London and had a great time. See more about the experience here.
Bushwalks and Beaches
If you prefer nature, then head to Tomaree National Park where some amazing bushwalks await you.
You’ll also find some of New South Wales’ most beautiful beaches – apparently, Zenith Beach is particularly beautiful (find more beautiful NSW beaches here).
Head to the City
Port Stephens is also an easy drive to, and from, Newcastle so you could combine your dolphin swim with a city break. If you do, then check out our guide to fun and unusual things to do in Newcastle to find some cool things to do when you’re there.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles including The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.
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