As the sun rose on a wavy sea casting an orange glow upon everything it fell upon, black and white shapes leapt out of the water and landed with splash sending white droplets high into the air. Every patch of water seemed to be occupied by a fin or a flipper and the silence of the early morning was only disrupted with the occasional sound of a boat engine or the “chuff” of air. This was our trip with Encounter Kaikoura to see the dusky dolphins and so far it was amazing.
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Today was my kind of day; a day filled with wildlife and photography and I absolutely loved it. Our first trip of the day was to see the Kaikoura dolphins so with a fairly early start of 4:30am, we got up, dressed and left the hostel. Somehow we’d managed to completely overestimate how long it’d take us to make our way to where the tours ran and so we ended up having to dawdle down the road. It was actually really good though as with it being so dark, there were still lots of stars out and we were able to spend a bit of time finding the things we’d learnt about on the stargazing trip in Queenstown. A little added bonus to the start of a really good day!
When we arrived at Encounter we were given a little orange card signifying that we were “watchers” and told to go and take a sit in the cafe. Those who were swimming were given either a red or blue card and sat with us until they were called to go and be fitted for wetsuits. I have to say, that system is so much better than the one adopted by the company we went with on our dolphin swimming trip in Adelaide as it meant that there was now scrabbling around or grabbing for wetsuits. Everything was just nice and calm and nobody was stressed- the perfect start really and I wish it’d been the same for us! After a very short wait, we were called in to join the swimmers in the cinema room to watch a little video about the health and safety procedures. I really liked how they went through things with you before you got on the boat as it meant that rather than having to waste valuable dolphin watching time, you could go out there confident that you knew everything you needed to. Such a good system and you could really tell that the owners have really made sure they set out to ensure maximum enjoyment.
At 7:00am it was time for us to leave the comfort of the cosy building and make our way to the minibus for a short trip to South Bay. It was strange to be leaving and venturing into the dark as after watching the video, me and Codie had both expected it to be lovely and sunny! It didn’t take long for us to reach the boats and within about 20 minutes we were off, bound for the open water and on the lookout for dolphins. The entire group had been halved and put on two different boats which meant that it wasn’t as packed as it initially seemed to be. We were on the boat “Lissodelphis”; a 13 metre catamaran which can carry up to 20 watchers and 16 swimmers, so as you can imagine we were really very comfortable. Once we’d had a quick demonstration regarding how to use the life jackets and knew where both they and the first aid kit kit, we had some time to get used to our surroundings and settle down for the ride. We’d been told that the dolphins could be anywhere between 5 to 45 minutes away and so we were aware that we might have a little while before the action kicked off. With this in mind, I relaxed back into my seat, wiped the window so I could see if I could see anything and prepared myself for an exciting morning.
Suddenly a splash about 5 metres away from the boat caught my attention and I scanned the water through the misty window, desperate to catch another glimpse. A few seagulls soared past and my immediate thought was that there were dolphins around. All those hours spent on deck in the freezing wind and rain through the Bay of Biscay years ago meant that I was very familiar with the signs of cetaceans and that was definitely one of them. It was all very exciting and my tiredness seemed to just melt away in an instant. As I let my eyes focus on the ripples and movements of the waves, one of the guides informed us that it had been a dusky dolphin leaping alongside the starboard side and even more excitingly, that there were dolphins around us. Not wanting to miss out on seeing them properly, we quickly headed to the back and watched them leaping and surfacing just behind the boat, lit up my the slowly rising morning sun and getting closer and closer every second. It was incredible. The longer we were out there, the more dolphins seemed to appear and after a bit, we were told that we could move to the from of the boat to get a better view.
Fins sliced through the water and the sound of the boat moving along was disturbed only by the noise of the dolphins surfacing for air. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten….I lost count of how many there were in the end as they weaved through each other, playfully leaping in front of us. It was quite surprising to see common dolphins interspersed with the duskies but it was lovely to see two species mixing together as though they’d been friends for ages. I knew that there were a number of species in the area but since you ever only really hear about the Dusky ones, I wasn’t prepared to see others so early into the trip. It came as quite a shock but definitely a brilliant one. When one leapt out of the water right in front of us, I even got soaked by the splash as it collided with the water’s surface; a bit of a surprise but really quite funny too. At one point New Zealand fur seals also bobbed past curiously looking around in case they were missing out on the action before disappearing under the waves and with us going seal kayaking later on, it was the perfect prequel.
The further we crept alongside the ginormous pod of leaping dolphins, the more we found ourselves surrounded by leaps, flips and spins. Encounter doesn’t force the animals to interact but instead offers them the opportunity to which is why it was lovely to know that these amazing animals wanted to see us and weren’t being harmed in anyway. Since we were now completely surrounded by them, the swimmers were all told to get ready to get in and within the space of about 5 minutes, off they went to began their interaction. There was no stress, no shouting, no panic about not getting to see them at all, nope, everybody seemed to get in without a hitch and so could enjoy their experience right from the start. It was a mile away from what we’d coped with in Adelaide. There there was such a rush that by the time you got in, you were already shattered and having to cope with all the stress which I think must have impacted our enjoyment in some way. So far our trip with Encounter was proving to be a fabulous experience and if I could, I would have stayed on that boat forever.
With the swimmers now floating about in the water, myself, Codie and another “watcher” steadied ourselves at the front of the boat and carried on watching the dolphins throwing themselves about near by. As there was about 500, not at of them were interacting with the swimmers which meant that we still got to enjoy seeing them so close to us. Good for us and good for the swimmers and good for the dolphins; everybody was happy! At one stage, we saw a pair of dolphins leaping in synchronicity and were informed that it was an act of courtship so that was quite nice to see, especially when they came within about 5 metres of the boat. It was lovely to be able to stare into their eyes as they soared through the air, delicately cutting through the water as they landed and you could really sense that they were just as excited about this meeting. It was just great and I think possibly my favourite ever dolphin experience.
Suddenly the boat horn sounded and all the swimmers had to quickly make their way back onboard. Of course this wasn’t the end of their trip, we just needed to get further in front of the pod so they could have another go and so after finding a suitable place, off they went back in. I have to say, getting to listen to them making as much noise as they possibly could through their snorkels so as to keep the dolphins interested was absolutely hilarious. I swear at one point I heard a duck! I loved that they’d been told do that as I think had we done that too, the dolphins we swam with would have been much more interested rather than circling us for a while then heading off. I’d say this swim was definitely worth the price and at this point, I was really beginning to regret not having a go myself. Grrrrrr. SPLASH! The leap of a dusky close by roused me from this thought and I quickly spun around to get a photo of it as it threw itself around, seemingly out of control. Dusky dolphins are renowned for their acrobatics and these ones were definitely showing off these skills. Everywhere you looked there were fins sticking out of the water or splashes from porpoising animals and I started to find it quite difficult to choose where to focus my attention. They really were just everywhere!
The Pacific ocean is also home to a number of other species of dolphins as well as common and dusky including the very rare Hector’s dolphin. As New Zealand’s only endemic dolphins and the smallest cetacean species, it was such a treat when we were alerted to two playing at the back of the boat. Unfortunately they are quick little things and after a very quick glimpse as we hurried to see them, they were gone and we ended up just with very soggy feet. That quick look had been amazing though and so whilst I was quite content with just that, it was incredible to see them pop up alongside the boat albeit it just for a second. With their “Mickey Mouse” dorsal fins, they were captivating little creatures and I was so pleased that we’d had the opportunity to see them, especially with their sadly threatened status.
An hour or so later packed full of activity, it was time for us to head back to shore. The swimmers were back on board warming up with a tasty hot chocolate and ginger biscuit each and there were still dolphins bow-riding at the front as if they were giving us one last show before we left. With a couple more leaps, a few more jumps and a sprinkling of spins, with that they were off. As one by one they peeled away from us with such elegance and grace, I made sure to soak in as much of the experience as I could though I know for sure, I’ll never forget it or them. When they’d gone and the boat was on course for the dock, we headed back inside for a rest and the chance to warm up. It had been a bit of a cold morning and I could feel the tips of my fingers begging for a bit of warmth but it was worth every second. Without a doubt. To top off such a great morning, we also saw an albatross running across the surface of the water as it tried to take off right next to us. The tour had been all about the dolphins but it was these little added extras which made it even more memorable and I stared out of the window until it had flown out of sight. What a perfect start to the day.
I’m so glad that we went with Encounter for our trip to see the marine life of Kaikoura as they make it all so easy to do and there’s no worrying at all whilst your out there. Even if you only watch and don’t take part in the swimming, I guarantee that you’ll still have an amazing experience and I only wish that we’d been able to stay on there for longer!