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Up close and personal with New Zealand’s dolphins

Something that looked like a short, fat, silver torpedo shot through the water towards me. My thick wetsuit kept me afloat in the sea, while at the same time restricting my movements. Escape was not an option. Not that I’d wanted to, because the Micky Mouse ear that glided past just inches away was in fact the dorsal fin of a Hector’s dolphin.

In order to understand why any sane person would happily get up in the early hours, drive an hour from the city of Christchurch to the small town of Akaroa, don what feels like a ton of wetsuit, listen to a lecture on marine mammals, and jump into freezing cold water miles off the coast, fast-backward nearly two decades ago to my first visit to New Zealand: up north in the Bay of Islands, where I was staying with friends, I first heard tales of dolphins keeping swimmers company.

Taking a boat out there was practically a guarantee to see dolphins. Strangely enough, the thought of joining them in the water somehow never entered our minds – probably misplaced politeness on our part!

Nowadays a number of local operators offer dolphin viewing and dolphin swimming tours from various starting points in New Zealand. As with all wild animals, there’s no guarantee they’ll show up where and when you want them to, no matter what the tour companies claim. The first time I tried to swim with dolphins in the Bay of Islands, a baby dolphin in the group prohibited us from joining them in the water. The second time, in Kaikoura in the Northern part of the South Island, the sea was too rough, preventing the boat from even leaving the harbour. Hence, on the day before my departure from Aotearoa, this was my last attempt to get closer to these fascinating creatures.

I’d opted to try my luck with Black Cat Cruises, an eco-tourism operator based in Akaroa Harbour. Staff in the office, as well as our skipper, guide and photographer on the boat were very friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Michelle, the guide, told us that we were going to see Hector’s dolphins, native to New Zealand and among the rarest of all dolphin species. At up to 1.40 metres and 50 kg, with the females being slightly bigger than the males, they are the world’s smallest dolphin. As coastal animals they don’t travel far, meaning the population usually remains within the same area, especially around the Banks Peninsula’s marine mammal sanctuary. Consequently, she got our hopes up we’d find some.

As soon as the catamaran was out of the pier we started looking for fins. As it turned out we had to leave the sheltered waters of the bay and cruise the open waters along the coastline before we got lucky: a couple of dolphins were chasing food, more or less ignoring us. Our skipper put the boat into neutral gear, and we bobbed on the water for a few minutes, watching them. Their bodies were light grey, with dark grey heads and fins, and white bellies; their dorsal fin was rounded rather than pointed, giving them a slightly comical look.

While we were snapping away with our cameras, our guide had noted a change in the dolphins’ behaviour. So, even though the surrounding mountains were capped with the first winter snow and my brain told me that the water must be freezing, when she suggested jumping in, I didn’t even hesitate.

Copyright Black Cat Cruises

Once in the water, surprisingly I didn’t feel the cold. When you’re that high on adrenalin, your body and mind seem to be otherwise engaged. Any apprehensions I might have had disappeared the moment the dolphins, who had seemed more interested in feeding than in any interaction when we stopped the boat a few minutes ago, suddenly came straight at us, leaving only a feeling of wonderment at how genuinely interested they seemed to be in us, and how close they came. My very first wild dolphin that swam past would have been close enough to touch, hadn’t I tucked my hands in!

Back on the boat, Michelle had given us instructions how to behave in the water. While Hector’s are said to be the most playful of all dolphins, there are still things you can do to enhance the experience for animals and humans alike. “Interaction is on their terms”, the crew had made clear – the dolphins can disappear whenever they want.

The fascination to meet these friendly creatures in their habitat knows no borders: Kiwis and tourists were mingling in the water, even one pregnant women who barely fit into her wetsuit, but simply couldn’t resist. With nine people off the boat, we quickly formed a circle with one person in the middle, all of us two to three metres apart. “You don’t want to look like a fat, 18-legged monster from below”, Michelle had warned us to appear as non-threatening and interesting as possible to any approaching cetacean. And sure enough, before we realised what was happening we had the first dolphin swimming right through our group. Just a few seconds later, the second one followed. They were certainly very curious to get a look at us. Naturally we’d been told to keep our hands and feet to ourselves, but apparently the dolphins hadn’t listened in on our lecture, because a happy squeak from one of the other swimmers indicated he’d just been touched by a dolphin.

Another way of attracting a Hector’s attention is to make “funny noises”. Michelle had suggested blubbering or singing down our snorkels into the water – especially lullabies seem to be popular – or rhythmically banging goggles and snorkel together. In case you can manage singing into your snorkel without a hysterical laughing fit, that’s your best option. But even swallowing salty seawater and consequently coughing into your snorkel rather than singing seems to do the trick.

Unlike other dolphins who swim in large schools and spend most of the time diving, Hectors stay on the surface a lot, so are easy to watch even if you can’t dive. In fact, some people in our group who were snorkelling missed several dolphins swimming right past them. I soon parted with my goggles and snorkel for their original purpose and used them only as musical instruments. Soon a second pair of dolphins made their way towards us, circling and criss-crossing our group, until up to six of them, usually in pairs, glided past, showing off their trademark rounded, dark fin. Their skins glittered silvery in the light. Occasionally their eyes were above sea level, giving the impression they were looking at you.

While the dolphins were doing the swimming, we humans were paddling about a bit uselessly, trying to keep our formation. The wetsuit not only made you look and feel like a barrel in the water, it also prevented you from diving or swimming properly. After a few attempts I gave up and allowed myself to float – when my feet came up I found myself more or less sitting in the water with a 360° show surrounding me! Whichever way I turned, a dolphin was coming towards me. Whatever I had imagined “swimming with dolphins” could be like, the reality was far more intense than anything I could ever have imagined. The sense of awe and wonder at their proximity left a lasting impression. I might not have been touched by a dolphin, but I was certainly touched by them.

After what felt like just a few seconds, we were told that we’d been in the water for 45 minutes already, the maximum time allowed. Reluctantly we paddled towards the boat, and climbed back on board. Here the cold suddenly hit us full force, and cups of hot chocolate, biscuits and blankets were extremely welcome.

Meanwhile, the dolphins had realised that we’d left them, and swum away from the boat. Just as Michelle told us that Hector’s dolphins usually don’t jump, two of them – as if they’d heard – jumped high out of the water as if to wave goodbye. And I swear they looked as if they were laughing at us. Even Michelle was impressed: “You guys had an awesome swim, it really doesn’t get any better than that!”

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