What could be worse than hurting the very wildlife you came to see? Tayla spent time with two tour providers practising mālama kuʻu home (taking care of my beloved home).

Here’s a not-so-fun-fact for you: Hawaiʻi is home to the most endangered wildlife species on the planet. That’s right, the planet.

With over 400 species on the list – ranging from the Green sea turtle and Hawaiian Monk seal to the native nēnē bird (an endemic Hawaiian goose) – Hawaiʻi is often referred to as ‘the extinction capital of the world’.

And while there are a heap of factors contributing to this biodiversity crisis, the common denominator is undoubtedly, well, us. Humans. Our toxins, our noise pollution, and our destruction of habitats.

On paper, we’re quite possibly the worst thing that could have happened to the earth.

So the big question for me after learning about Hawaiʻi’s species strike-rate was: is it even ethical to seek out wildlife experiences in Hawaiʻi? And is it possible for tourism to have a positive impact?

The answer – after many local conversations, lots of reading and a literal deep dive on my most recent trip to Hawaiʻi Island – is ‘yes’. But it comes with a big disclaimer:


Ethical wildlife adventures are only possible if you practise mālama kuʻu home (taking care of my beloved home) and align yourself with clean, green, and aloha-filled operators.

If you’re looking for an epic, impactful wildlife experience, here are two of my faves on Hawaiʻi Island:

Dolphin Duty with Captain Koka and Hawaiian Sails

Watching a pod of dolphins dance alongside a boat or surf through serene shallows has got to be one of the most gratifying, and unifying, human experiences. Why? Because dolphins are a hit of pure dopamine.

They’re the antidote to a bad mood. In fact, I think it’s scientifically impossible to be in a bad mood when you’re in proximity to dolphins. 

Captain Koka and his crew (made up of his two eldest kids, Vassi and Tehani) confirm my hypothesis – it’s good moods and aloha-only when you’re sailing a traditional Hawaiian waʻa (pronounced vah-ah) and a pod of spinners come to say hi.

‘Remember, don’t get too close to the naiʻa (dolphins),’ Koka reminds Vassi, who’s at the helm of Hahalualele, the impeccable replica of an early Hawaiian sailing canoe – the kind of canoe Koka’s ancestors would’ve manned on the first ocean voyages.

‘They’re coming up on the right, they’re playful today.’

Koka is being respectful, not just because it’s intrinsically Hawaiian to respect the ocean, but because Spinner dolphins are a protected species here – classified by NOAA as ‘inherently vulnerable to depletions with low likelihood of recovery’ – and it’s prohibited for any swimmer, boat, kayak or canoe to get within 45 metres. 

ʻMālama means to take care of the land and the ocean,’ Koka tells me as two Spinner dolphins practise aerial gymnastics. ‘We’re the stewards of it, we want to take care of it – we’ve got to take care of it.’

This principle of mālama is at the heart of the Hawaiian Sails ethos. Where noise pollution from motorised vessels jockeying for prime dolphin viewing is a big issue – Hawaiian Sails cruise quietly, with just a pull on the jib.

While some operators try to put swimmers as close as possible to the pods – Hawaiian Sails is dropping anchor at pristine, isolated stretches of coastline and educating snorkelers on what to do if a dolphin swims up (the answer: nothing – just float, enjoy and definitely don’t give chase). 

‘My purpose is to educate,’ explains Koka. ‘To share our history, our legends and the Hawaiian culture, so that whoever comes to Hawaiʻi, leaves with a bit of Hawaiʻi.’

And if you’re lucky, a responsible naiʻa sighting or two.

Tips for Ethical Dolphin Viewing

  • Choose a tour operator with a Dolphin SMART certification
  • Never approach, swim with or stay within 45 metres of wildlife
  • If you’re on a motorised vessel, cut the engine to reduce noise pollution
  • If you see a dolphin in distress, report it.
  • Consider hiring a kayak or canoe, as a less invasive vessel

Mission: Save the Giant Manta Ray, with Anelakai Adventures

‘Manta rays are the real angels of the sea,’ says Iko Balanga, founder and owner of Anelakai Adventures, the local outfit taking me on a nighttime manta excursion off the Kona Coast.

‘They’ve got no stingers, no barbs, not even any bones – all they have is muscle and a giant smile. They’re pure happiness.’

The sun is hovering close to the horizon when Iko hands me a paddle and points to the double-hulled canoe waiting in the bay.

Anelakai Adventures is the only non-motorised vessel in Hawaiʻi offering hāhālua (manta ray) experiences. Which means it’s entirely non-invasive, completely oil-free and totally paddle-powered – just the way I like my sea journeys.

‘My mum named me Iko, so I have to be eco-friendly,’ he tells me with a wink. 

Swimming with giant manta rays (some of which have a wingspan of up to 10 metres) is a bonafide bucket list experience, but given their status as ‘threatened’ on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) the regulations around engaging with mantas in the wild are changing – for the better. The number one rule? No touching.

‘The biggest threat to mantas is humans. Our oils don’t mix well with their mucus lining, it’s bad for the animals. That’s why I’m out here, I want humans to understand and to fall in love with mantas so that we can all protect them better,’ says Iko. 

And he takes his job seriously. On Iko’s outrigger canoe, snorkelers hold onto a rope and float on the surface of the water to avoid any accidental contact.

But this extra distance doesn’t detract from the experience, if anything you’ve got a better view – and you don’t need the lungs of a freediver to enjoy it. 



LED lights under the canoe attract plankton, which in turn attracts the manta rays, which in turn gives us an extraordinary, Attenborough-esque, non-invasive manta show.

‘On this island we’ve got two things – the volcano and the manta rays,’ says Iko, ‘so we need to keep them alive. They’re a part of our life, of our ecosystem. We need everything in our oceans.’

And after my manta experience, I’d have to agree. They really are the graceful angels of the ocean.

Tips For Ethical Manta Ray Swimming:

  • Choose a sustainable, locally-owned operator on the Manta Ray Green List
  • Never touch or dive down with the manta rays
  • If you’re on a motorised vessel, cut the engine to reduce noise pollution
  • If you see a manta ray in distress, report it


If you, like me, are a wildlife aficionado who dreams of seeing everything from turtles hatching to humpbacks breaching – come to Hawaiʻi Island and spend time with locals like Koka and Iko. It’s inspiring to hang out with humans who not only respect their ancestral connection to ʻāina (the land) and kai (the ocean) but are also actively working to improve and share that connection with everyone – one lucky tourist at a time. 

As Iko says, ‘Everything runs downhill to the ocean in Hawaiʻi, so we’ve got to be sustainable. Our goal isn’t about money, it’s about educating and keeping our oceans safe.’


Want more aloha? There’s more Hawaiʻi to experience, go now.


Photography by Matt Horspool Photography