New Zealand: Swimming with Wild Dolphins in Kaikoura

Along my journey over nearly a month in New Zealand, I had many people ask me if I was going to do the wild dolphin swim in Kaikoura. Here, visitors are almost guaranteed marine life encounters all year round, due to its location near the deep-sea Hikurangi Trench, which brings up-swells of nutrient-rich currents from the depths, making the seas around Kaikoura home to giant sperm whales, super pods of up to 500 individual dolphins and great seabirds such as the albatross.

The town itself is situated on the east coast of the South Island, about 2.5 hours north of Christchurch, and as such, was not included on my Sheepdog pass. I paid NZ$20 for the extra ride on the Kiwi Experience bus heading back up to the North Island and booked my return on national transport back to Christchurch the next day, where I needed to catch my flight back to Auckland.

Arriving in Kaikoura after lunch, we paid up front at Encounter Kaikoura and were pleased to be put on the next tour at 3pm, which was great news as the afternoon was bright and sunny.

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Perfect weather to be on the ocean

As we walked around the back of the centre to get kitted out, we were sized up and handed the thickest wetsuit I have ever seen; 6mm thick. It came in two parts; a sleeveless full body wetsuit and then a separate jacket, covering the core body again down past the bum, with a Velcro strap pulled from back to front through the legs to secure. The jacket had long arms and mittens for hands. We were also given a hood which covered full neck and head and was tucked inside the jacket collar. This allowed just eyes nose and mouth to be uncovered for the diving mask and snorkel.  My main deduction from all of this was, it’s going be mightily cold!

Once everyone had their gear, we got on the waiting boats and sped out to where the dolphins had been spotted most recently, only ten minutes from shore.

THE SWIM

A quick safety briefing later and we could see the dolphins riding in the wake of our boat and doing backflips in the water around us; it’s like they knew we were coming and were excited to play!

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Racing the boat

With the sound of a bell, we jumped into the ocean and discovered, oh yes it was cold! The kind of cold that takes your breath away so much that so you can only do short sharp inhales because it hurts to have full lungs.

The water was dark blue and murky and I could feel the gentle pull of a tide. I started to panic a little bit – totally unexpectedly. I sang a song into my snorkel to calm myself down and tried to breathe more steadily. I ended up singing the first thing that came into my head which happened to be ‘Bread of Heaven’…the Welsh nationalist from my dad’s side had come out in the 13-degree water.

It roused me enough and I swam over to the others, looking down to try to see a dolphin. Then, quick as a flash they were whizzing past me. In groups of two and threes – swimming under and around me, even straight towards me. I was eyeballing dolphins as they tilted their heads to get a good look at this funny thing suddenly in their ocean and shouting, “Feed me till I want no more!” in a cartoonish voice in between squeals of “Oh My God!”

I can only imagine what it looked like to spectators on the boat.

The dolphins are attracted by noises and diving down, so I tried diving but the wetsuit proved too buoyant. So singing it was. I had a think and decided to go with modern British – try and give these marine mammals a musical education…

Adele is best sung into a microphone and not a snorkel but “Hello” seemed fitting enough.

A beautiful silvery blue dusky dolphin looked me in the eye as he swam around me in circles. I followed his lead – trying to keep up with him and spinning myself in the water. He won the race and swam off.  But this happened countless times – they really love to play. Bottlenose dolphins joined in the fun and we could hear their clicks and vocalisations through the water.

We had three swims in total. The water is cold, so the boat staff need to make sure everyone is fit to continue swimming at regular intervals, so we went back to the boat after around ten to fifteen minutes in the water each time.

A Humbling Experience

Dusky dolphins are graceful, inquisitive and fun-loving mammals. Seeing them in such huge pods was stunning – there were about 150-200 dolphins in the waters around us that day.

Better still, everything is on the animal’s terms. They aren’t fed. They are completely wild. They choose to turn up, to play, even to touch you – it only happens if they want. No nets, no trainers, no swimming pools, no tricks, no touching, no riding the dorsal fin. It’s not Sea World and it’s all the better for it. I’ve seen The Cove – a documentary on the capturing of wild dolphins for the global theme park market, and it is disturbing, to say the least. I don’t think anyone would swim with captive dolphins after watching that film, which is why I was so thankful I could still enjoy their company and this incredible experience, safe in the knowledge that it is ethical.

I would highly recommend it if you are considering making the trip to Kaikoura. It’s not cheap but it is a once in a lifetime experience and if you grew up on David Attenborough and are a mad animal lover like me, it will be a total dream come true.

You are likely also to see the other wildlife that frequents New Zealand’s waters. Over some biscuits and a cup of hot coco to warm up, we saw a mindbogglingly big giant albatross beating its ginormous wings in flight and watched some cute fur seals rolling around in the water having an afternoon snack of their own. If you are really lucky, orcas are known to be spotted in the area, though they aren’t resident and didn’t come out the day I was there.

Which is probably just as well given I looked like a giant juicy, hapless, tone-deaf seal!

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Goodnight from Kaikoura
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Pink sunsets over Kaikoura

Notes:

Kaikoura itself is a pretty little town with coastal walks perfect for spotting whales from land if boating isn’t your thing. Inland there are also waterfall trails for hikers wanting to see some temperate rainforest. Traditional fish and chip shops such as Top Shop or Coopers Catch are perfect supper options to end your day by the coast.

Dolphin Encounter – an adult swim costs NZ$170 (roughly £85) while watching from the boat is NZ$90 (£45). The tour takes approximately 3.5 hours and runs three times a day in summer (Nov – April) and twice daily in winter (May – October).

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