One thousand years ago the region around the Kaikoura Peninsula was the hunting ground for the largest bird in the world – the moa. Less than one hundred years ago it was a whaling and seal fur station. However it is now one of New Zealand’s foremost eco-tourist destinations and is known as the ‘Whale Capital’ of New Zealand. Kaikoura, from the Maori, kai – food, koura – crayfish (lobster), is a small town, population 2,500, situated, 185 kilometres north of Christchurch on the East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
Te ika a Maui – the fish Maui caught – as Maori legend tells us, this is the spot where Maui fished up the North Island from the sea. Set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains is a small strip of fertile flat land, which is home to farmers and fishermen, with a tempestuous coastline that meets the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Kaikoura offers whale-watching, swimming with dolphins and seals, bird watching, coastal and bush walks, limestone caves, mountain biking, skiing, horse trekking, parapenting, surfing, fishing, scuba diving – if any of that doesn’t interest you, how about farm tours, white water rafting, golf and traditional Maori art.
For those who enjoy nature, Kaikoura offers the ultimate experience – swimming with dolphins and fur seals in their natural habitat and being able to get close to a Giant Sperm Whale and see the smallest of all dolphins, the rare New Zealand Hector Dolphin. There are also a large variety of seabirds that either make Kaikoura their home or nesting grounds and these include the Albatross, Shearwaters, Petrels, Penguins, Gannets, Shags and numerous Gulls and Terns.
The experience of a lifetime – swim with dolphins in their natural habitat. This is not a ‘set-up’ as in some aquariums where you see swimmers holding onto the dolphin’s fins for a ‘ride’. Here it is the dolphins’ choice whether they have the inclination to swim with you or not.
My first trip started at 5:00am as I wearily climbed out of bed and made my way to the roadside with high expectations of an exciting encounter. It was a cool morning with the mist hanging over the ocean when the Dolphin Encounter bus picked me up to take me to their office where the swimmers excitedly donned the wetsuits provided by Dolphin Encounter. A short bus ride took us to South Bay to board the catamaran to visit the dolphins.
As the boat headed out to sea we were informed of how to enter the water and attract the dolphins. Actually when the first group of swimmers entered the water the sound they emitted reminded me of a beer-sodden rugby team leaving a pub late at night. We were told to slip into the water and start singing – have you ever been immersed in freezing cold water with a snorkel in your mouth and told to sing? – it’s not easy. Although the sound was not the most melodious I’ve heard, but certainly better than most KL karaoke lounges, it attracted some of the dolphins. On board, where we had seen the delightful dolphins on the surface, we were told to dive below the surface, as there are approximately three dolphins under the water for every dolphin above. Nevertheless, once in the water our excitement of being so close to this wonder of nature we forgot what we had been told and didn’t put our heads under the water. Soon we got the gist and dived, flippers together, simulating – well at least endeavouring to – the dolphins. We were mere guests to their domain and to be accepted by them was something that I will never forget. For a dolphin to come to you, look you in the eye and I’m sure, smile at you has to be one of the most phenomenal encounters that we can experience. The feeling was so overwhelming that it was and still is indescribable.
After swimming we were given a hot cup of chocolate and biscuits to warm us up while we spent time watching from the boat. At one time there was an estimated three to four hundred dolphins around the vessel. The sea practically boiled with dolphins – a sight that will remain etched in mind for many years. The antics of these engaging mammals warmed my heart as much as the hot shower and drink warmed my body. The Dusky Dolphin is regarded as one of the most acrobatic of the dolphin species. Duskies spin, side-slap, belly and backslap, somersault forward and backward and do anything in between. It is not known for certain what these frolicking acrobatics indicate but it is believed that they are playful and possible denote social and sexual activity level. Other leaps serve other functions; a headfirst re-entry is for chasing fish, a side-slap is usually for communicating to others.
These enchanting mammals kept me captivated for hours. Whether it was a mother with her calf close to the boat or an acrobatic adult somersaulting in the distance or a small pod cavorting near the surface. I was totally mesmerized by their antics and the time passed all too quickly. “Duskies show that they are alert and happy by the most complicated acrobatic leaps of any dolphin species”. As one European exclaimed as he clambered on board after a swim – ‘it’s a better high than bungy jumping!’ — I couldn’t agree more. I was fortunate to go out on the 9:00am trip as well. This time I concentrated on taking photographs – not an easy task as these mammals move so quickly and are so unpredictable. As I scanned the sea with my telephoto lens hoping for that one shot that would recapitulate the Duskies, I was successful in getting two airborne dolphins in one shot. After spending five hours at sea I know that I will return to spend more time with the dancing Duskies.