Sunday, March 20, 2011

South Island Road Trip with Louise: Dolphin Swim!

One of the last things on Lou’s list of things to do before she left the country (and certainly on my list, but I had a little more time to check it off) was going to Kaikoura to participate in the infamous dolphin swim. After we’d had enough climbing on our last day, we returned the hired bouldering mat and headed for Kaikoura. We caught a glimpse of a gorgeous sunset on the drive in to town and stopped at a car park in town to cook and eat our dinner. We found a nice spot to sleep in the car again that night (since it was going to be quite a short night!) and wound up having a stunning view of the moon shining over the ocean, hanging so bright and low in the sky it almost looked like a hazy sunset.

Louise and I, ready to go!

A pre-5am wake-up is not ideal for anyone (especially for the second time in a week) but what we experienced that morning was well worth the effort of getting out of our cozy car! We got ourselves together and headed to Dolphin Encounters for our scheduled 5:30 dolphin swim. We were outfitted with wetsuits, jackets, hoods, flippers, snorkels, and masks, and then escorted to a small auditorium to watch the safety briefing video. 

The video explained what we would encounter out in the water, and mentioned a few ways to get the dolphins’ attention. We would be swimming with Dusky Dolphins – some of the world’s smallest – out in the wild. We were informed the dolphins were not trained and that the boat took us into an area where the dolphins pass through on their daily migration.
We were instructed not to touch the dolphins, as it would compromise their trust and curiosity, and instead do what we could to entertain their attention. We were encouraged to make noises through our snorkels to attract the dolphins, make eye contact to capture their attention, and even swim in circles with them for maintained interaction. I had only been snorkeling once before, and Lou had limited experience as well, but we both wound up having a fantastic time!

We were shuttled to South Bay in Kaikoura where we boarded the boat and headed out to sea. After about a 25 minute boat ride (watching the sunrise as we went) we were instructed to prepare for our first swim!

I was ready with my waterproof camera (probably one of the best situations where it has come in handy!) and entered the water with everyone else. It was somewhat overwhelming when there were 15-20 other snorkelers around you, while you were also trying to look for the dolphins, so it took some getting used to. I hung back from the group, trying to find dolphins on the outskirts of where everyone was gathered. Getting used to the snorkel again proved a bit challenging, but the water was relatively calm so there weren’t any big waves to make you drink saltwater! 

Underwater self-portrait - can't you tell it's me?

I focused on trying to find some dolphins and get their attention. There were heaps of them in the pod, so even if you lost track of one, another one wasn’t too far away! I snapped pictures furiously every time I spotted one, not even looking at my camera screen to see if I caught anything good. I swapped back and forth to video mode and tried to capture the Dusky’s beauty and dramatic presence in motion. I made countless noises and tried to make eye contact. I was even able to circle swim with them a few times (though trying to do this while videoing the interaction proved difficult!) It was such a rush to be there, surrounded by these foreign – yet familiar – creatures! They swam so close to you I often couldn’t get their whole body in my picture! Before long, the boat’s horn was blaring and we were called to return to the deck.

Lou, coming to take my camera away!

All the swimmers piled on, and the crew took us to a slightly different location in order to try for another swim. We entered the water a second time and it was slightly more comfortable than the first experience. Now I knew to stay on the outskirts of the group and keep an eye on the crew who pointed us in the right direction if we weren’t finding any dolphins. I was still somewhat distracted with trying to capture the dolphins on film when I found Lou among the crowd. I snapped a picture of her and she offered to take my camera (through snorkel grunts) so I passed it over. 

It was amazing the freedom I then felt to just be able to swim and enjoy my time with the dolphins! I was able to make silly noises, swim faster to maintain eye contact, and even circle swim for an extended time period! I felt more relaxed and absolutely loved the experience! After some time, Lou and I looked up toward the boat because there were only three swimmers left in the water. We thought we had to go in, but the crew waved us on. We had more time! I guess most of the swimmers had had enough and we were able to enjoy a few moments of quiet interaction with the dolphins. It was exhilarating! There weren’t other people to accidentally run into while trying to keep your head down to see underwater, there were no fins inadvertently kicking you, and there were more dolphins per person to enjoy! These last few minutes were spectacular but soon enough the horn blew and we knew our experience was coming to an end.

We boarded the boat and warmed up with their hot water hose. We then had a couple minutes to change while the boat brought us closer to the dolphins for some photo opportunities. The Dusky dolphins were showing off for us, playing around in the water. We saw high jumps, back flips, corkscrews, tail slaps, jumps in unison, and various other dolphin displays. They followed the boat, swimming with the bow, and we even spotted a few calves swimming (and jumping!) with their mommies. It was overwhelming because there were so many dolphins that you didn’t know where to look next! Lots of them showed off far away from the boat, but then suddenly one would catch your attention close by on the opposite side. I took a few videos but the activity was so random that I didn’t know which direction to point the lens and wound up moving it around way too much!

It was an incredible experience and I’m happy Lou was there to share it with. I don’t think I would have had the same appreciation had she not taken my camera and allowed me to relax and enjoy the moment!

Unfortunately, not everybody on the boat had a splendid time. When we got back on the last time, there were passengers strewn about pale-faced and clinging to buckets. I felt bad that they missed out on such an amazing experience, but at the same time I don’t quite understand the notion of seasickness. I suppose I grew up riding in boats and sitting on docks so it has never bothered me, but some of them looked absolutely miserable! I would venture to guess about half of the passengers had a negative reaction to being out on the water (the reason why some retreated to the boat early). I have never been so grateful to not have that problem as I was that day! 

At least some of us were able to walk away with a positive experience with the dolphins. It was by far one of the most incredible interactions with nature I have ever been a part of! Definitely worthwhile and absolutely recommended! For a little more entertainment, check out my video clips. I tried to crop them to eliminate any seasickness (well, with the exception of one where I may or may not trip in the middle of it...)!


  1. Hi Kristin.

    Thanks for visiting our family blog. I am sure my daughter, Bea will be stoked to read your comment on her post about the Christchurch earthquake ;-) She's at school today (first day back since 22 Feb!) so won't get to read your comment till later this afternoon.

    Have fun in NZ!

    from Christine (Gooding)

  2. Oh, wow, what a gorgeous experience! Dolphins really are just amazing creatures. So true too that sometimes you need to put away the camera to properly enjoy the experience, I know I'm guilty of the same thing. (And I also share your lack of empathy with sea sickness - we were always out on Dad's boat as kids and I've never experienced it - I guess it must be awful but what a shame to miss out on swimming with dolphins because of it!). Love your pictures here anyway!

  3. @ Christine: I thought Bea's post was beautifully written and was so impressed at her age! Always encourage her to write, she has a true talent! Hope all is well with you!

    @Amanda: It's always tough to know when to draw the line between capturing the memory on film and actually appreciating the moment, glad to know I'm not the only camera addict who struggles with that! I would definitely recommend the dolphin swim experience when you make it over here, it was incredible! Thanks for the comments! :)


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