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Swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura

We’d purposely come to Kaikoura for its abundant sea life – there’s everything here from albatross to orcas. Many come for the spectacular whale watching, but we’d come for a special dolphin encounter.

Our freedom camping spot near Kaikoura was one of the best - no facilities, but secluded, right on the beach and the view was amazing!

Our freedom camping spot near Kaikoura was one of the best – no facilities, but secluded, right on the beach and the view was amazing!

Dusky dolphins are found all over New Zealand, but particularly in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding this area – and we wanted to swim with them.

We started our day with a wet suit fitting and a safety briefing – which also included handy tips on how to attract a dolphin’s attention. Basically the aim is to be as dolphin-like as possible. You keep your arms at your sides, swim down occasionally (if you can), make noises through your snorkel and try to get eye-contact.

Now, I didn’t have high hopes to start with considering the difficulty we’d had trying (and not succeeding) to swim with dolphins in the north island. When we heard the water was choppy, we expected the tour would be called off. Luckily for us, the sea wasn’t quite rough enough to stop us having our swim – but it was enough to make several people quite ill!

Away we go!

Away we go!

The other worry I had was that we’d been told time and time again that these are wild animals – they aren’t trained in any way and may not be interested in you, or even appear on the day. When we heard over the radio that a whale watching boat had spotted a pod of dolphins, our boat raced over the waves and I started feeling butterflies of excitement.

There's one!

There’s one!

Soon enough we started to see them all around us – dark grey dorsal fins piecing the water every now and again. We rushed into position, keen to get in the water and catch a better glimpse of them before they could swim away. When I’d plunged into the sea I scanned the murky blue water all around me for any sign off life – but all I saw was Dale turning this way and that, also trying to find the elusive animals.

Just as I was about to go to the surface for a better look, a grey torpedo suddenly appeared out of nowhere and dived right passed me!

Incoming!

Incoming!

Frantically I started making noises – eager to catch its interest. No sooner had I started making noise (a bizarre high-pitched squeal that was the first thing my over-excited brain could come up with) another shape came racing passed, slowing just enough to take a better look at me – the odd creature making weird squeaky noises.

You can almost see the dolphin thinking 'what ARE you doing?'

You can almost see the dolphin thinking ‘what ARE you doing?’

I must have seemed interesting enough to stick around because, to my amazement, the dolphin swerved in an ark around me, easily cutting through the water. I spun around with him, trying to keep eye-contact as he circled me and then, just like that, he swam off – disappearing into the blue oblivion.

Bye bye dolphin!

Bye bye dolphin!

I was completely breathless – I couldn’t believe I’d just swum with a real wild dolphin! I was so happy I was giggling to myself down my snorkel – making weird gurgling noises that attracted yet another one!

The dusky dolphin is found in various places in the southern hemisphere and is very pretty with distinctive stripes

The dusky dolphin is found in various places in the southern hemisphere and is very pretty with distinctive stripes

It was amazing to watch them glide around in the water with such agility, and it was incredible that they were actually playing with me – the dolphins easily circling me in ever-decreasing loops until they were close enough to reach out and touch, and me spinning around in the middle trying to keep up. It wasn’t until I went back up to the surface for a quick rest and to see how Dale’s swim was going that I realised that I was too far away from the boat!

We had expected that ‘swimming with dolphins’ was really just clever marketing spiel for ‘swim as a dolphin passes you and disappears into the depths’, but this was much more interactive. I really felt like I was communicating with them – calling them over with noises and playing their dizzying circle game. They were so much fun!

I also wasn't expecting there to be so many!

I also wasn’t expecting there to be so many!

When I started to feel too tired to keep swimming back towards the boat through the choppy sea, I reluctantly realised it was time to get out. When I saw the look on Dale’s face I knew that he’d had an amazing time too.

Our guide, Ed, told me that we’d had a ‘one drop wonder’ – when the dolphins are in a playful mood and curious enough to stick around, so we didn’t have to move to a different location to find more. He said we’d managed more than 40 minutes, which was very good going and that they’re generally pleased when they manage to get just 20 minutes of swim-time with the wonderful creatures.

After we’d dried off and warmed up with an on-board hot chocolate, we were allowed some more time to watch the dolphins from the boat as they flipped and somersaulted out of the water in a spectacular array of tricks.

Dusky dolphins are well known for their spectacular aerial displays

Dusky dolphins are well known for their spectacular aerial displays

It wasn’t until I was up on the top deck that I could see just how many dolphins had been around us – we had been swimming in a pod of more than 300!

There were loads of them!

There were loads of them!

Heading back to the shore, we both felt stunned by the experience we’d had. We were extremely lucky and privileged to have had such amazing contact with these beautiful animals on their own terms and in their own territory.

Kaikoura is a beautiful place - even if you don't want to go out on a boat, the scenery is lovely

Kaikoura is a beautiful place – even if you don’t want to go out on a boat, the scenery is lovely

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