How to See Dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
Admittedly, Rarotonga and the Cook Islands are not particularly famous for dolphin watching tours. That’s because dolphins have not historically been frequent visitors to the Cook Islands, making any chance of “dolphin swimming” or “dolphin watching” tours unfeasible… Until recently! That’s right, pods of dolphins have been sighted more and more off the coast of the Cook Islands with Rarotonga, in particular, now having permanent pods of dolphins. Learn more about what species of dolphins you can see, as well as how to see them, in this guide to dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands!
Frequently Asked Questions About Dolphins in the Cook Islands
Before we go into detail about when to see dolphins in the Cook Islands, here are a couple of frequently asked questions that the internet has about seeing dolphins in Rarotonga and beyond!
Are There Dolphins in the Cook Islands?
Yes, there are dolphins in the Cook Islands! Spinner dolphins are the most frequent species of dolphin sighted in the Cook Islands, but other species are known to visit – check out the “Species of Dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands” section below for more details.
Are There Dolphins in Rarotonga?
Yes, there are dolphins in Rarotonga, however, this hasn’t always been the case. The number of resident spinner dolphin pods in Rarotonga has gone from 0 to 32 between 1998 and 2020, so seeing spinner dolphins is a much more frequent occurrence than it used to be. More data on the subject can be found at WhaleResearch.org.
Species of Dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
The main species of dolphin you will see in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands are spinner dolphins.
The species of dolphin that frequents much of the South Pacific islands, spinner dolphins are also the species seen the most in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands – more now than they were 20 years ago. Spinner dolphins swim in pods of less than 50 to up to a thousand dolphins, with some pods sighted off Rarotonga being close to a couple of hundred. These species are well known for their acrobatic displays, spinning on their longitudinal axis. They can spin up to 3m (10ft) high and do multiple spins in one leap.
Other Dolphin Species Sighted in the Cook Islands
While not as common as spinner dolphins, other dolphin species have been sighted over the last 20 years including Fraser’s dolphins, orcas, false killer whales, rough-toothed dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Peale’s dolphins, spotted dolphins and striped dolphins.
The Best Time to See Dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
The great thing about spinner dolphins is that they can be sighted in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands all year round!
Is There a Dolphin Season in the Cook Islands?
There is no particular “season” for dolphins in the Cook Islands, you just have to have a bit of luck on your side. See the section below for ways to improve your chances to seeing spinner dolphins in the Cook Islands.
How to See Dolphins in the Cook Islands
The best way to see dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands is to get out on a boat trip beyond the reef. Much of Rarotonga and Aitutaki’s tourism happens within their lagoons, but if you can get out on a boat beyond the reef and into the habitat of spinner dolphins, you greatly increase your chances of seeing them.
Boat Tours in Rarotonga
The most prolific type of boat tour from Rarotonga that ventures beyond the reef are fishing charters. Fishing charters take you out on the water for around four hours on a half-day charter to a full eight hours if you choose a full-day tour. This is a good amount of time spent on the water, therefore, offers a good chance to spot dolphins. Check out fishing charters in the 10 Best Fishing Charters on Rarotonga. Note that if you’re not into fishing, many fishing charters also offer sightseeing charters as an alternative.
Spinner dolphins are also sometimes sighted on scuba diving trips when taking divers out to the coral drop-offs at the reef’s edge. Note that these trips are typically for certified divers, but snorkellers are often welcome to join these trips too. Find out more in the 5 Best Dive Shops & Operators in the Cook Islands.
Banana boat tours and whale watching tours with Rongohiva or in the semi-submersible vessel with Raro Reef Sub are more ways to get beyond the reef. Learn more about these tours and any we might have missed in the 10 Best Boat & Sailing Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Boat Tours in Aitutaki
Most of the boat tours in Aitutaki just stick to within the lagoon, but whale watching tours, such as Wet & Wild and Bubbles Below take you beyond the reef primarily to look for whales in the whale season, additionally coming across dolphins during these trips. You may also see dolphins when out on fishing charters from Aitutaki, which we list in the 5 Best Fishing Charters on Aitutaki.
Dolphins in the Outer Islands
Commercial boat tours are very few and far in between in the outer islands of the Cooks, with the exception of Atiu Safari & Fishing Tours on Atiu. You will just have to depend on your social skills to wrangle your way onto a fishing boat.
The good thing about many of the outer islands, especially the Southern Group islands, is that most are raised coral atolls with no lagoon, meaning that it is possible to spot spinner dolphins from shore, again, if you’re in the right place at the right time. Head to some of the whale watching spots that we mention in the 10 Best Places for Whale Watching in the Cook Islands which are also good for spotting dolphins.
More About Dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
That’s it! That’s our guide to seeing dolphins in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands, as well as the best time to see dolphins in the Cook Islands. Now, discover more about our marine friends in our other guides:
- Cook Islands Whale Season: The Best Time to See Whales in the Cook Islands
- 10 Best Turtle Swimming Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- 7 Best Whale Watching (& Swimming) Tours in the Cook Islands
Finally, add more essentials to your Cook Islands bucket list drawing from the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.