Wow. I’m just recovering after my close encounter with, literally, hundreds of dusky dolphins. It has been a life ambition to swim with dolphins, and I have no sense of anti-climax whatsoever, having achieved it. It was as humbling and wondrous as I always imagined it would be. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos to share, as I was in the water for most of the time, so my descriptions will have to suffice, although in no way will they be able to do the experience justice. The positive side of this is that I don’t have to share with you how ridiculous I looked in wetsuit, gimp mask and snorkel.
We went out at 8am this morning, on a relatively calm sea, although with a noticeable swell left over from a storm in the night. Quite a few people were hugging buckets ominously, but I felt fine as long as I stayed outside. We were overtaken by loads of Huttons shearwaters slicing the air at high speed just above the water (a rare bird species endemic to Kaikoura, which breeds at high altitude in the adjacent mountains), and passed quite a few albatross bobbing on the waves and the odd seal rolling around on the surface. Kaikoura is the best place to see marine birds in NZ, with 14 species of albatross alone occupying these waters, the smallest of which has a wing-span of over 2 metres. This area has incredibly nutrient-rich waters due to the proximity of a deep ocean trench just off the coast, which accounts for its spectacular marine life including dolphins, whales, seals and many bird species.
It wasn’t long before we spotted the first huge pod of hundreds of dusky dolphins and the odd common dolphin. On the boat’s signal, we were then allowed to enter the water and play with the dolphins to our heart’s content, as long as we didn’t try to touch them. The guides stressed that these were wild animals and it was up to us to entertain them, not the other way round. Tips to attract them included singing, making any kind of other squeaking noise, swimming in circles with doggy paddle and diving down with them.
From the first moment of looking down and seeing tens of dolphins swimming right below me, I felt hugely privileged to be so close to these beautiful creatures. It was a very special moment. But then it got even better. I embarked on singing (randomly, I seemed to adopt a solar theme, with frequent renditions of The Sun Has Got its Hat On and You Are my Sunshine) and swimming in circles, and it wasn’t long before we were properly interacting. They would swim up close, eyeballing me with their strangely vacant eyes and circling me fast, such that I frantically tried to keep up with my comparatively clumsy and laborious doggy paddle. They are so strong and elegant in the water, it is beautiful to watch. At one point a dolphin picked up some seaweed in its mouth and aimed it at me. I then picked it up myself and waved it around and the dolphin nosed it with its snout before shooting off again into the depths. It was magical to know that I was playing with intelligent, wild animals, and we were enhancing each other’s life for that brief moment. Another highlight was spinning around and creating a vortex with at least eight dolphins, all keen to get in on the action. My squeaks became more and more involuntary, as I marvelled ecstatically at what was happening.
Every time I looked up for a moment, I saw that the surface of the sea was thick with fins and leaping dolphins, but it wasn’t long before I was head-down again, to have some more fun with them. We had three swims with three different pods in total, and it was with extreme reluctance that I came back in for the last time. Unfortunately a man on our trip was quite ill, so we had to curtail the trip by around twenty minutes so we could get back to shore. But still, I enjoyed every second of the time I had with the dolphins and will never forget the experience.
I just have one photo, of me on the boat on the way back in after the experience. Hopefully it sums up how happy I was feeling.
I have a few more hours to enjoy Kaikoura, and then I’m taking a bus to Christchurch for the night. I had planned to walk round the Kaikoura peninsula and view the seal colonies there at close quarters, but I think my body is staging a sit-in protest at the cafe where I’m typing this, and doesn’t seem to want to move. I don’t blame it – it’s been a hardcore week of walking, kayaking, and the surprising vigorous cardio work-out of trying to keep up with the dolphins. So instead, I think I will sit here a while and watch the world go by and perhaps read my book. Luxury.