There aren’t many things I’d wake up at 4 a.m. for; but swimming with wild dolphins is one of them.
Initially, I hadn’t considered swimming with dolphins in New Zealand. I figured it would be a Sea World-esque experience, where they’d throw you in a tank with a sad dolphin.
Not in New Zealand.
Here, companies with special tourism licenses take you out to swim with pods of wild dolphins.
Kaikoura is one of the best places in New Zealand to observe wildlife, due to the deep Hikurangi Trench that lies just off its shores. The nutrients and currents from this trench attract wildlife, such as sperm whales and albatrosses. A fur seal colony lives on the edge of town. And dusky dolphins are in abundance.
Unfortunately, like the rest of New Zealand, the weather is unpredictable. My friend, Molly, tried to go whale watching for three days a few years ago, but the weather was never good enough.
I knocked on wood for a week hoping for clear skies.
Dusky dolphins are small to medium dolphins that live in the Southern Hemisphere. They have dark grey or black backs with light grey or white bellies. A light grey line runs from their eyes to a short, dark grey nose.
The dusky dolphins stay off the coast of Kaikoura all year round. In the summer, they move closer inland so the drive to get to them is a bit shorter.
Dusky dolphins are known for their acrobatics. Like other dolphins, they leap and slap their tails. They are unique and best known for their somersaults. They flip in the air and flash their white belly towards the sun before slipping back into the ocean.
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura is a locally owned business that has been running dolphin tours for over thirty years. They have three boats and can run three dolphin swimming trips a day. To protect the wildlife, there is a limit of sixteen swimmers per boat.
I was very excited to find an opportunity to swim with wild dolphins that was ethical and conscious of the environment. For more information on sustainable tourism and why it’s important, check out this great post by the Runaway blog.
Swimming with wild dolphins costs $180 NZD for adults.
If you don’t want to swim with the dolphins, you can go on the boat as a dolphin watcher. This only costs $95 NZD per adult.
For either activity, book ahead to ensure you get a spot.
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura rents Go Pros for you to use to film your wild dolphin swim if you don’t have your own. I chose not to, as the $69 price point for the camera with a viewing screen seemed like too much. Besides, I wanted to enjoy my wild dolphin swim handsfree.
Instead, my friends Joe and Amy kindly offered to share their pictures and videos with me, as they’d already rented one (thanks, guys!).
The Best Time to Swim with Wild Dolphins
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura runs three tours daily: 5:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. They recommend their 5:30 a.m. tour, as the dolphins tend to be most playful in the morning.
Unfortunately, I am least playful at 5:30 in the morning. But you’ve got to work with the dolphins’ schedule.
Preparing to Swim with Wild Dolphins
After jumping out of bed at the sound of my insanely early alarm and stuffing a cheese roll in my mouth, I was ready to swim with wild dolphins.
We got lucky: our driver woke up early to drive us to Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura. It saved us a thirty-minute walk in the dark.
At Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura, we were given a full kit of snorkelling gear: a snorkel and mask, fins, an insulated wet suit, a wet suit hood and a wet suit jacket. The guides glanced at us and tossed us a set in our size.
The wet suit was as buoyant as a life jacket apparently. I asked for a kick board or a pool noodle, just in case, but never ended up needing it.
Unlike the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, this wet suit was dry. (Thank God. I don’t think I could have survived a damp wet suit at 5:30 a.m.)
We had to put on our gear before heading onto the boat. Sixteen people bouncing around on one leg on a moving vessel was likely to end in disaster. As it was, I nearly fell over trying to tug the wet suit over my feet in the change room.
No one could keep a straight face when we pulled our hoods on. Bits of hair stuck down into our face. The fabric seemed to smoosh your chin and cheeks closer to your nose.
At least it would keep us warm!
How to Interact with the Dolphins
Before your swim, Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura gives you some tips on how to interact with the dusky dolphins.
When you hop in the ocean, you’re in their environment. It’s important that you work to make them comfortable.
Slide into the water so you don’t jar the dolphins.
Don’t try to reach out and touch them. This usually scares them away. Keep your hands at your sides and try to swim “like a dolphin” (for me this meant awkwardly pelvic thrusting and not really getting anywhere).
Dolphins live in a world of sound. The best way to get their attention is to make noise. The guide recommended singing your favourite song or making squeaking noises.
The videos they showed of wet suit clad figures trying to hum through their snorkels were hilarious. Why would anyone want to embarrass themselves like that?
Oh, right: dolphins!
Dolphins are intrigued by people that dive down below the surface and will often circle or dive with you. I’m not a very strong swimmer, so I opted to avoid that option.
You can also spin with the dolphins. Simply look them in the eye, keep your hands at your side and turn in a circle. The dolphins with usually follow you. After a spin or two, they tend to get bored and speed up to see if you can keep pace.
You definitely can’t. These things are speedy!
They gave us lots of warnings to not be disappointed if the dolphins don’t feel like interacting with us. Some days they just aren’t in the mood to hang out with sixteen strangers. The dolphins are wild, so they can’t predict their behaviour.
I was getting worried that we might not even see a dolphin. I kept getting flashbacks to a whale watching tour I took with my mom in San Francisco that yielded no whales and a lot of sea sickness.
Swimming with Wild Dusky Dolphins
Finally, close to 6 a.m., we piled into a van to head to the boat. We tucked away our dry clothes and snorkels to relax until we found the dolphins.
I was practically buzzing with excitement. The nervous butterfly-belly feeling you get before an exam? I had that sitting on this boat searching for dorsal fins in the waves.
We were sitting on the back of the boat, staring at the water when, suddenly, a fin appeared. A dusky dolphin!
Soon there was another. Then another!
One somersaulted into the air and my breath actually caught in my throat. My camera was still in my lap, turned off, as I marvelled. I just saw a dusky dolphin doing its acrobatics! Who cares if I got a photo for the gram?
It seemed like second later when we were sitting on the back of the boat with our fins dragging in the icy water, preparing to slide in. I noticed a seal swimming to the right of the boat and kept pointing it out, oblivious to the guide telling us to hop in. Flailing, I slid in after the others and froze.
I’m not talking about not moving. I mean, every part of my body was suddenly twenty degrees colder. Or it felt like it was.
The ocean water flooded my wet suit, spreading the chill through the thick fabric. How cold must it be without the wet suit? I wondered.
I thought about turning back. My hands were already stiff by my sides. I realized I hadn’t even put my snorkel in my mouth. No wonder I was struggling to breathe underwater.
Then I saw it streak past me: a dusky dolphin.
I shoved my snorkel in my mouth and plunged my face into the water, worries forgotten.
The dolphin seemed close enough to touch, but when I lifted my head to watch it crest, I realized it was further away than I’d thought. Being underwater totally distorted my already questionable spacial reasoning.
I didn’t see the seal again. Maybe it swam off. Or maybe I was just too focussed on the three dolphins I could see drifting beneath our group.
I could hear a strange mix of humming and squeaking. Who was making that horrible noise? Oh my god. It was me! Unbidden, this strange sound was coming from my mouth and echoing through my snorkel as I tried to catch a dolphin’s eye.
It took a few tries before I found a dolphin who wanted to turn with me. I caught its eye and spun in a tight circle, flippers flapping about behind me. It was probably the least graceful thing I’ve ever done. But I didn’t care. Because the dolphin followed!
We were spinning together in the freezing ocean at 6:30 in the morning.
I drifted away from our group a couple times, swimming aimlessly in search of dolphins that would rise from the blue nothingness below me or pop up at my feet. Occasionally, people would swim into me or I would swim into them, our eyes so focussed beneath us that we didn’t notice black blobs and bright yellow Go Pros rapidly approaching.
The few times I raised my head, I could hear a cacophony of humming, squeaking and singing. Someone was trying to perform the Indiana Jones theme song. I kept making Dory-esque whale noises, somehow so stunned by the dolphins that I forgot they actually were dolphins.
I don’t know how long we were out there. Looking back, it felt like minutes. When I was in the water, it felt like hours. Swims usually range from 20-40 minutes, depending on the dolphins. Ours was probably somewhere in there.
Eventually, the dolphins swam away until only a couple would flit in and out of sight.
The guide blasted a horn and got us back on the boat. I had been minutes away from bailing and returning to the vessel. My hands were so cold they actually hurt and I was pretty sure I’d never feel my ears again (can you actually feel your ears?).
We piled onto the back of the boat, but were told not to take off our wet suits. They were taking us to another spot.
I considered peeling off my hood and demanding they serve me my weight in hot chocolate, but something told me not to. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. When was I ever going to get to swim with wild dolphins again? (Part of me wanted to say “never” if it was going to be this cold.)
So, I bore the cold. I flexed my overly white fingers and watched for dorsal fins.
Our Second Dolphin Swim
Our guide came around and told us to pull our masks down, so we’d be ready. I fumbled with mine, trying to get wet hair out of my face with fingers that seemed as helpful as marshmallows.
The horn blared and we were back in the water.
Although I was prepared for the cold, that didn’t change the fact that it was really cold. Can you get brain freeze just from being in cold water? If so, I had it.
Five dolphins swam in front of me. Three adults and two smaller ones that must have been babies. I gaped at them, accidentally filling my mouth with salt water. (Note to self: mentally gape when snorkelling.)
Our new spot had more wild dolphins that were eager to play with us. Grey streaks kept flitting past me, swimming so fast I nearly missed them.
A few swimmers dove down, drawing the dusky dolphins closer to them. I was a bit jealous. If I’d known that swimming lessons would have helped me play with dolphins, I probably would have tried harder as a kid.
My mangled whale song started again. I kept trying to turn it into a real song or squeaks, but Dory had clearly invaded my head. The dolphins did seem interested in whatever the sound was and drifted towards me.
I spun with a few of them until I was dizzy and had managed to kick myself in the face with my flippers.
We swam for a shorter time at our second stop. The dolphins were plentiful, but we weren’t allowed to stay too long. The boat needed to get back and the dolphins needed a break from curious tourists.
Drying Off and Dolphin Watching
The boat had two hot hoses that we lined up to shove inside of our wet suits. Steam rose as we filled our suits with the gloriously hot water. My clumsy fingers could barely hold the tap as I tried to warm them.
Hopping out of a soaking wet suit on a moving boat filled with other people is not an easy feat. My fingers seemed incapable of gripping or bending. Pulling on yoga pants with immobile fingers may be one of my greatest accomplishments to date.
We changed into dry clothes and wrapped ourselves in blankets to try to warm up. Thwarting that effort, I ran to the front of the boat to watch the dolphins try to race us. The swam with the boat, surfacing in front of us or riding the waves.
In the distance, a few leaped into the air.
We dolphin watched for a while, excitedly pointing at the massive pod as their fins rose with the waves. Our guide used a hollow sounding microphone to tell us about dusky dolphins, Kaikoura and the company.
I was shocked to learn that the two dolphins I had seen belly-to-belly weren’t just playing; I’d witnessed a dusky dolphin mating. I felt a bit better after learning that my friend, Joe, had watched a dolphin poop. Mating is probably better than pooping, right?
Returning to Shore
To head back, we were forced away from the dolphins playing at the bow. I snagged a cup of hot chocolate and ginger cookie to enjoy as we motored to the pier.
I felt bad that I hadn’t even noticed that some people were sick. Apparently, it is very common to feel ill after the dolphin swimming. I’d taken a sea sickness tablet before, since I usually get green just looking at water. Either the tablet really worked or my adrenaline was so intense that it was preventing me from feeling sea-sick. (I’m inclined to believe the adrenaline, as I was almost shaking the rest of the day – much like after my skydive.)
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura has hot showers, but we didn’t have time to use them. Two of us had to jump on a Kiwi Experience bus and make the journey to Wellington. That meant that I was salty until 7 p.m., when I finally managed to shower.
While I was swimming, I thought that I’d never want to do it again. The cold water was so intense and part of my brain kept downplaying the fact that I had swum with wild dolphins. But I had swum with wild dolphins! Now, I would 100% set my alarm incredibly early, sneak out of a packed hostel room and shove my face into the icy ocean to get to play with some dusky dolphins again.
The best part of the experience was that they were wild and operating of their own free will. No one forced or enticed them to spend time with us. A few clearly didn’t care for us and swam away. The ones that stayed and spun with me did so because they chose to.
Really, who wouldn’t want to spin with a wild dolphin?
Thank you to Amy Wyatt and Joe McCallum for the photos and videos! Any photos or videos underwater came from them. Follow @amy_wyatt_ on Instagram for more of her awesome photos!
Check out @dolphinencounterkaikoura for more photos on videos from their dolphin swims.
For more videos, check out my Youtube Channel @Nina2813.