Almost all Caribbean ports of call on cruise ships will offer an excursion to swim with the dolphins. And it sounds like something cool to do, right? The only issue is that the price tag is usually hefty at well over $100 per person. Despite prior trips to the Caribbean, we had not yet chosen to swim with the dolphins. So finally in April, 2014, during our 5 day Caribbean Disney cruise from Miami, at our stop in Grand Cayman we did so. The kids were 14 and 11 at the time. We had been to Grand Cayman just under a year ago and experienced some unique excursions (see Turtle Farm and Stingray Excursion) and thought this time we would try the dolphin excursion. We chose the "deluxe" adventure excursion which included riding on the dolphin as well as a side trip to the Turtle Farm across the road. Overall ,the excursion was nice. We were picked up outside the ship in a van and driven to the dolphin swim location. The turtle farm is directly across the road, so our guide took us there first and we had time to visit with, feed, and hold the turtles. (See more information on turtle farm excursion.) At our appointed time, we left the turtle farm and headed back across the street to the Dolphin Encounter. We checked in, were put into groups, donned life jackets and given instructions. When it was our turn, our group went into one of the pools with the dolphins. We went down steps and stood on a metal platform where our instructor greeted us and introduced us to our dolphin. He gave us tips on interacting with the dolphin and we each got to touch her. Then, he started giving instructions on the various interactions we would have with the dolphin and sent one person out to do each -- we shook fins with the dolphin, got a dolphin "kiss," got pushed on a kick board by a dolphin, and rode on its stomach. Everyone got their turn to do each of these interactions. A photographer was there to capture all the fun on film. Note that there are several "levels" of dolphin interaction from which you can choose. In the lower and less expensive level, the dolphin swims by you and you interact, but you don't actually swim "with" them or ride on them. There are also options where someone can just observe the rest of the family participating, paying a fee to do so. You won't be "right there" with your family, but a little distance away -- close enough you should still be able to see, but not right at the tank. Note also that there are age restrictions for this excursion and they may vary by location. At 14 and 11, my kids were a perfect age -- they weren't afraid to be out in the water by themselves (for the dolphin swim, you swim out a distance away from the rest of the group) and could follow the instructions given to them. If your kids are under 10, you may want to consider the dolphin encounter where you would be up close with the dolphin but not swim on or with them. Be sure to read the descriptions of your excursion choices closely before selecting. If you have questions, the shore excursion desk on the ship should be able to assist you.
So, that was the fun part. What I did not enjoy was what came after --- the pressure to purchase photos of your wonderful encounter. The dolphin was not slimy, but this photo business -- THAT was slimy. After we changed out of our wet clothing, we entered the gift shop where you could view all the photos that were taken. And, they were definitely good photos -- each family member getting kissed by the dolphin, riding on the dolphin, etc. Of course they showed you all the photos before giving you a price. When we asked for a price, the woman took a little laminated card out of her pocket and gave a price of over $300 for a CD with pictures of the 4 of us. Talk about sticker shock! This would be for a CD with all of the photos. What felt "slimy" to me was that these prices were not posted anywhere -- not on the wall, not by the computers, nowhere. When I looked around, I saw slips of paper with other prices listed -- that were cheaper than what we were quoted. When I asked about the prices, the salespeople would not look me in the eye. A manager came over and explained that the prices I saw written down were for a group of 2 people, not a group of 4. I was disgusted. I have no doubt that the prices quoted vary depending on what cruise ship is in town -- and when I asked about this, they did not provide a direct answer. Because we were on a Disney ship, I think the prices were at their highest. If we had been on Carnival, or just staying on the island and walked in off the street, or here during the off-season, I think the prices would have been much lower. Otherwise, why would a salesperson need a laminated card to tell you what the prices were? I know this is a business, and I respect that. But be upfront about your prices -- post them clearly and don't pull price cards out of your pocket! We ultimately purchased a CD with 2 photos, one of each of the kids with a dolphin and paid about $70. Wow.
Overall, what are my recommendations for a dolphin excursion? I would say when you are in a Caribbean port of call, check out excursions that show you something unique to that area -- ruins, enjoying the beautiful beaches or water, a traditional ceremony. You can really swim with the dolphins anywhere. It is not something unique to your stop -- and you can do it in the United States too. But if nothing else at your port interests you, or you've been to this port before and seen what it has to offer, then yes, I would recommend swimming with dolphins. HOWEVER, just know that you will likely be asked to pay a LOT of money for the photos. If you really want the photos, great, just know that you will be paying a lot for them. If you don't want to spend that money, or do not see a need for the photos, be sure to forewarn your kids so they're not looking up at you with longing eyes when the sticker shock comes. Tell them the photos are expensive and you will likely not be purchasing any -- set their expectations. Another idea would be to have one member of your party pay to participate as an observer who could stand a distance away, watch the encounter and take your own photos. You may need a telephoto lens, as I said the observers do not stand super-close. But it might be worth a try. I would also double check before booking as an observer that you will in fact be allowed to take a camera into the observation area and take photos.