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Swimming with New Zealand’s dolphins

I ask Curt to drive my mid-90’s vintage Nissan Sunny rental car because the clock reads 5:15 a.m. and I try to avoid being awake during the 5 a.m. hour.

We begin our two-hour drive from Curt and Leslie’s apartment in Christchurch, New Zealand, to Kaikoura, where we are scheduled to swim with dolphins in their wild habitat.

Since we don’t know Sunny very well, we find out about an hour into it that she thirstily sucks gas as we cruise over narrow roads and corner the super tight S-curves we’d come to know so well in New Zealand.

It’s now after 6 a.m., and as we round a bend it seems like the ocean splits open our world. Waves crash on a jagged, rocky shore. Mist rises and joins the gray clouds that blanket the sky. 

Sunny’s gas tank is in trouble. But two closed gas stations later, we roll into the Dolphin Encounter parking lot with Sunny sputtering on fumes.

We check in, then enter the gear assembly line where I get my wetsuit from an already highly caffeinated Kiwi. Pick up your wetsuit, coordinating jacket, hood and booties, they tell us. Then fins and snorkel. Try it all on and join us for a video about the Dusky dolphins.

We learn that the Dusky dolphins can travel in pods of 100 to 800, sometimes numbering up to 1,000. Measuring four to five feet in length, the Duskies are a pretty acrobatic lot, apt to leap and do back flips. And, since they favor the waters near Kaikoura, we’re sure to see plenty of them today.

After the video, it’s off to the boat. This is not a theme park scene – no man-made pools, no kids in grandstands devouring wads of cotton candy larger than their heads. Just wide open South Pacific and lots of dolphins.

The trip leaders take out their trusty binoculars and shield their eyes so they can spot dolphins in the distance. Although they know these seas like the backs of their hands, they don’t have much more of a clue where we’re going that day than we do. They just drive the boat looking for dolphin pods, stop when they find them, and drop us into the water to swim with the Duskies.

All suited up with everything covered except our hands and a small percentage of our faces, my three friends and I dangle our feet into the water waiting for the signal to jump in.

The water’s cold, and I do cold about as well as I do early mornings. They told us earlier the water temperature today would be 14 degrees Celsius. I consider asking Curt to convert that to Fahrenheit but I’m too busy steeling myself for the plunge. 

We jump, and immediately begin “singing” into our snorkels. Basically you hum a tune of your choice into the snorkels, which is said to attract the dolphins. The repetition of my tune helps me keep my mind off the cold.

There are more than a dozen dolphins within my immediate line of sight, swimming all around us. Curt dives down and begins to pirouette with one of them, both circling each other for several seconds. Leslie snaps underwater photos.

Me, I’m just in awe. We’re all having a great time, dolphins included. Have you ever noticed dolphins seem to have perma-smiles on their faces? Wouldn’t you if you played in the waves all day? I drop below the water a few feet and am startled when a dolphin swims above me. 

Too soon the dolphins disperse and it’s back onto the boat to find the next pod. Ginger cookies are offered to quell any seasickness, and in about 15 minutes buckets are offered. The swells are pretty significant, the boat pitches back and forth, and Sue literally tosses her cookies into the bucket while I grip the railing and lock my eyes on the horizon line.

We stop, swim and sing with two more dolphin pods before turning back to shore. If you’re too cold to keep your wetsuit on, you step into a coed locker room of sorts in the main area of the boat. It’s an open space where you get naked with your fellow travelers – men, women, and children – no matter – all tossing their clothes.

I put on all the clothes I have in an effort to alleviate the inner chill. Three layers on top, two on the bottom, wool socks and a fleece hat and gloves. Then I snuggle against my friends under a fuchsia blanket provided by the tour operators.

As I contentedly gaze out at the open seas, it occurs to me that we can flee cities to find nature, but very infrequently can we share an intimate experience with animals in their natural habitat. These dolphins were not afraid of us, but rather embraced our presence and welcomed us into their world.

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