Sailing, Snorkeling, and Watching Dolphins on Kauai’s Napali Coast

Bottlenose dolphins

It’s not often that the captain of a tourist catamaran is rendered speechless by what he sees in the course of a daily tour, but I’m here to tell you: A pod of approximately 750 spinner dolphins (his estimate, not mine) will do it. Followed by another 250, give or take, bottlenoses.

The spinners arrived first: One or two to start, jumping out of the water, doing the marine equivalent of a skater’s triple axel. Then more and more joined in, couples, groups, even mothers with babies, all spinning crazily, each topping the other with rotations so fast my eyes couldn’t keep track.

According to the Wild Dolphin Foundation, no one knows precisely why spinners spin: Suggested reasons include a virtual laundry list of animal behavior: courtship, thermal regulation, teaching the young, communicating where they are and where they are going, ridding themselves of parasites, getting water out of their respiratory tracts. Or perhaps simply for fun.

As an observer, I’m going with that last explanation: To me, it looked like an ecstatic frenzy, a celebration, a massive dolphin party. Or, to quote the Wild Dolphin Foundation: “I am a spinner, therefore I spin.”

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The combination of sailing on a catamaran under the colorful plunging Kauai cliffs to a remote snorkel site is one of Kauai’s classic tours.
  • There’s a chance of seeing dolphins and whales.
  • Good for families, sea-lovers, snorkelers, and sailing enthusiasts.

Catamaran on the Kauai Coast

Admittedly, this wasn’t just another day on the Kauai’s Napali Coast: Our captain told us he’d never seen this many dolphins all at once, ever. Not only that, but they stuck around, cavorting around our boat, putting on a show that only ended when we finally, reluctantly left. There was, you see, still snorkeling to be done, and although I have never once in my life turned down a chance to snorkel in tropical waters, on this occasion, I felt a twinge of regret.

So good news and bad news. Bad news first: You probably won’t see a thousand dolphins. Good news? You almost certainly will see some, possibly along with whales (in season). Add to that the snorkeling in a clear protected cove just under those fantastic multi-hued cliffs. Throw in a gentle sail to and from with mountain-fringed seascapes the whole way. Bucket trip? I’m thinking: It sure is.

The Na Pali Coast

Na Pali Coast, Kauai

Kauai’s Na Pali Coast is one of the island’s most iconic landscapes — and yes, it’s got plenty of competition: There’s Jurassic Park Falls and Waialelale Crater (said to be the wettest place on earth), both accessible via helicopter sightseeing tours, as well as Waimea Canyon and, clear on the other side of the island, Puff the Magic Dragon himself —  a mountain formation that sleeps over a place called Hanalei.

But the Na Pali Coast is unique: I can’t think of another place that has the same combination of landscape textures, of colors, cliffs, and ocean. The volcanically-formed and wind-eroded cliffs here tower over the sea, with a series of ridges — palis — that look like fingers extending into to the ocean. The area is almost completely protected, in part because it is almost entirely inaccessible: On land, the Na Pali Coast can only be reached from the north side of the island near Hanalei by a foot path used by native islanders long before Europeans ever arrived. The path wends in and out of the cliffs, up and down, past tiny tucked away beaches and waterfalls. The only other choice is to see this place by boat.

Just in case you’re wondering, I recommend doing both.


  • Most catamarans go out west of Poipi on the south side of the island; only one outfitter operates a NaPali Coast cruise from Hanalei on the northern side.
  • Captain Andy’s is one of the island’s longest-running boat tour businesses. They run a variety of tours out of Port Allen Marina Center in Ele`ele: Snorkeling tours, sunset tours, early morning tours, and more.
  • Bring bathing suites (of course), lots of sun screen, a chat, and a camera. Waterproof, if you have it. Snorkeling equipment is provided.


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