I knew I had something great to look forward to waking up on my first full day in Puerto Vallarta, as we were scheduled to visit Dolphin Discovery Aquaventuras Park, swim with dolphins and meet some sea lions up close.
Here’s a couple of things that I liked knowing going into this experience — Dolphin Discovery is known as the world’s number one company for swimming with dolphins. They are five time award winning members of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association. They are also the only dolphinarium in Mexico that is certified by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums (AMMPA), which means they don’t just meet but actually exceed the U.S. standards for animal care.
Given my dithers, I would have gone swimming in the ocean with dolphins, which is something Dolphin Discovery does offer at some of its other locations. But swimming in the large warm salt water pool at the Dolphin Discovery Aquaventuras Park in Puerto Vallarta was the next best thing.
Okay, first things first, we need to strike out that part where it says “swim” with dolphins and replace it with “awkwardly tread water”. I am not a strong swimmer. I’m not truly comfortable in the water, and I was really happy that life jackets were a required part of this experience. However, I have to say, I was made to feel comfortable and never felt embarrassed.
Once we’d signed in and were ready to start our adventure, our group of nine suited up in life jackets and headed to the pool where we met the dolphin trainer and he introduced us to the pair of dolphins we would be interacting with, a young female named Xunnan and an older male named Poseidon.
We lined up shoulder to shoulder and the dolphins swam past us over and over as we reached out and caressed them. Each of us had a chance to meet a dolphin one on one for a flipper shake and a kiss. We each got to perform a “dorsal tow”, that’s where the two dolphins come up on either side of you, you hold onto their top fins and they pull you through the water. We also each had the chance to do a “foot push”, this is where the dolphins come up under you and push you right up into the air as you glide across the pool. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of landing with a face-plant in the water as I came back down from that foot push maneuver, so I passed on that one and did a second dorsal tow instead.
My favourite moment was when I got to “hug” Xunnan. The trainer directed me to swim out to the centre of the pool and then lay my arms out in front of me, with my palms flat and out. The dolphin swam up in front of me and parked herself on my hands and I got to hold her for a minute and then send her on her way.
The dolphin trainer was amazing. This fellow knew a LOT about dolphins and their behavior. We bloggers were an inquisitive crew, and he readily answered questions on everything from diet and breeding to training techniques. Not only was he clearly skilled at working with the dolphins, he spoke both English and Spanish fluently and had an incredible knack for remembering everyone’s names and which of us was a solid swimmer and which wasn’t.
We got to learn a fair bit about the dolphins, how they live, train and interact with humans. For example, one blogger asked about the rake marks along the side of Xunnan and the trainer explained how dolphins do everything with their beaks, and when they disagree teeth are involved. 18 year old Poseidon didn’t display many “scratch” marks because as alpha male of the group he’s at the top of the pecking order.
The dolphins sang and jumped for us. To me, they seemed awfully patient with a bunch of awkward humans. They also seemed genuinely affectionate, particularly with their handler. We spent about an hour in the water with Poseidon and Xunnan, yet it felt more like ten minutes. Once we’d said our goodbyes we got out of the pool and moved over to the shallow end to meet the sea lions.
We met two sea lions, learned a bit about how to identify a male vs a female and a South American vs a Californian sea lion, and got to play around with them. This portion was focused on teaching us a bit about sea lions, which was neat. We each got a whiskered kiss and got to make silly faces for the camera with the sea lion, and we also got to hold their flipper for a brief moment. We then lined up for a splashing water fight, the sea lion with his powerful flippers was most definitely the winner.
We then exited the pool, dried off a bit and headed to the onsite restaurant for lunch. I was blown away by how good the food was. We had family style fajitas, with chicken, fresh cheese, and chorizo sausage. There was also ceviche and a sort of shrimp cocktail, as well as nacho chips, guacamole and of course salsa. Everything was so fresh and delicious. I’ve come to expect subpar food at the zoo or like attractions. The food here was not merely ok, it was fantastic.
During lunch, we chatted with Dolphin Discovery’s social media manager and learned how the park is popular not just with tourists but also with locals. He talked about how packed they had been a few weeks back for the Children’s Day festivities put on by various local companies. I loved hearing about how Dolphin Discovery Puerto Vallarta gives back to their community. The rep talked about the program they have in place to get kids into the park for free. Through the 10,000 smiles program, they bring 5,000 children into the park to swim with the dolphins and also collect stuffed animals to donate to another 5,000 children. Hence the name: 10,000 smiles. Also once a year they dedicate one day’s ticket proceeds as donations to a local group which supports underprivileged children.
After lunch, we had a brief bit of free time to explore the rest of the park. This is definitely a place that you could spend the entire day at, particularly with kids in tow. There was a lazy river area that you could float down in a tube, several steep water slides, and a large kiddie water play area, as well as plenty of shady places to sit and regroup. There were also dolphin shows and sea lion shows scheduled throughout the day.
Before leaving we had a chance to take in the dolphin show, where three trainers swam and interacted with three pairs of dolphins as another trainer lead the show, reciting dolphin facts in both Spanish and English. The seating was plentiful and well spaced out so that everyone could easily see the show. It was also mercifully shady, under a nice large canopy.
Overall our visit to Dolphin Discovery Aquaventuras Park was an amazing and memorable occasion. My only regret was that I didn’t have my kids with me as I know my daughters would have loved this place so much. It was definitely a very family friendly spot and one that I would love to bring my girls to. If I were to go back I would plan to spend the entire day, from opening to close. They also offer a whale watching ocean tour which I would love to go on.
I’m not going to sugar coat this, the entry prices are a bit steep. The prices just for the “swim with the dolphins” portion started at $79 for adults. However, the experience felt worth it. I felt that Dolphin Discovery lived up to their tagline of “The Experience of a Lifetime”. This was definitely a place where you could spend one very enjoyable and exceptional day as a family.
Disclosure: I was invited to visit Puerto Vallarta as part of a press trip. One of our scheduled stops was a morning spent at Dolphin Discovery. As always my words and options are my own.