Swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura

We had an amazing time in New Zealand. And by amazing, I mean: really awesome! It was the last country I visited together with Ms.Rice on our 5-month Big Trip. Little did we know, by the time we set on Auckland soil by the beginning of February, that we would experience so many great adventures.
We went sea kayaking at Abel Tasman National Park, hiked the Tongariro crossing, hiked up to Roy’s Peak in Wanaka, did a skydive in Queenstown, toasted loads of coffee and craft beer in Wellington, made our own spa at Hot Water Beach,… Yet, still, swimming with wild Dusky Dolphins beats it all. The first post about our journey through New Zealand therefore is about, to what I personally feel, our biggest adventure. And maybe…

even the biggest adventure of our entire Big Trip.

Kaikoura’s environment is truly spectacular – the village is caught between the rugged Seaward Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean.  It is the epicenter of marine wildlife activities in New Zealand: you can go albatross spotting, check out fur seals on the shores, go on a whale watching tour, or

go swimming with wild Dusky dolphins

To get yourself started for a dolphin encounter is pretty easy. It’s a highly regulated part of wildlife tourism, so only one company offers (and is allowed to offer) dolphin tours: Dolphin Encounter. Around one week before I would arrive in Kaikoura, I emailed the company to show my interest in 2 spots on their swimming with dolphins tours. A few days later, I received a call with some options on several days. I choose what suited us best, and the day before the tour, I went to pay for it. So there you have it: let’s go SWIMMING!

Swimmers and dolphins in action

Choose your tour wisely

Both Ms. Rice and I aren’t always early birds, so we did not opt for the 5.30AM tour. Since there’s always a possibility the 12:00PM tour has a slightly rougher sea (motion sickness Ms. Rice), we went for the 8:30AM tour.
We were immediately informed about the weather (great sunshine, almost no wind, calm sea = JACKPOT) and the fact that the 5:30AM tour was able to spot many Dusky dolphins. There’s always a chance you won’t see any, yet, Kaikoura has a pretty high positive chance factor (around 90%). A great start of the day!

Get your gear and keep your head cool

The swimmers are divided in 2 groups (there will be 2 different boats), once we heard our color, it was time to get our gear and get dressed. We got: full cover thick wetsuit (2 pieces), snorkel gear, flippers. The wetsuits are quite thick and buoyant so you will always float. It will be tight, but that’s the whole idea of creating a “second skin”.
The next part is a general briefing for both swimmers and spectators with a 15 minute video on how to behave on the boat (safety procedures), what to expect, but more important: how to behave once in the water. As Dolphin Encounter stated it very nicely: it’s not a right to swim, but a privilege to swim with the dolphins. You’re always dependent on the behavior of the animal. Best ways to get the interest of some dolphins of the pod? Swim in circles with hands on the back, make a diving movement or sing a song in your snorkel. In the end, you just need to keep your head cool and just enjoy this amazing moment…

Off to the harbour…

We were all set now, and yeah, we were really excited for the set off! Ms. Rice quickly took her motion sickness pills (just in case), and I did a last check of my action video equipment: off we went… to the bus!
Yes, there’s a short bus ride towards the Kaikoura harbour on Southern Bay. As if we were not already very lucky with that day’s weather (well, actually our entire trip throughout NZ), we really could not believe our eyes while we were driving on the last part of the coastal road towards the harbour: a pod of over 150! dolphins were playing very close to the shore and the harbor. This meant we did not have to sail very far, nor that we had to start looking for them!

And on to the boat

Off the bus, on the boat. The recent earthquake’s effect on the harbor was pretty rough: generally, the sea level was lifted by approx. 1 meter. Some construction works were going on in the harbor, and we had to enter our boat on land (on a trailer). We were about 25 persons on the boat (20 swimmers, 5 spectators), together with 1 skipper and 2 people from Dolphin Encounter assisting us. The final briefing was short: we knew where the dolphins were, so all we needed to know was how to get safely in the water, and when we would need to get out of it.
It’s funny, the moment right before you enter the water: imagine, 20 people with black suits and funny goggles, waiting to splash in and experience one of the best moments of their lives. Like children waiting for the final moment at school before summer break. It’s AWESOME!

Let’s JUMP.

You quickly get used to the floating feeling of the wet suit, we were surprised of the thermal power of the suits: it’s not cold at all! Action video ON and off we went.
We started using our techniques: swimming in circles while also making some funny noises or songs through our snorkel to catch the dolphins’ interest. What happened next is not easy to describe in words, but here goes:
You’re swimming, making your sounds, and yes, suddenly, one, two, three or more dolphins starting swimming near you, briefly out of the water to breathe, then swiftly going under water (yes, most activity is seen under water 🙂 ). The moment you start your circles, they actually do start swirling around you, going faster and faster. Yes, you mean get some noxious feeling after so many circles, ha! For the next 30 minutes, it’s all about keeping the dolphins attracted to you, in a very freedom-like, yet playful manner. Sometimes there are several dolphins joining you, sometimes you just need to swim a bit further, or just sing louder 😉 . Videos on our activity in the audio will be added soon!

Happy dolphins swirling around you

My personal feeling: I felt it was a bit easier to be a little bit away of the main group of swimmers (thus also a bit more away from the pod). Especially making the sounds was very useful. At many occasions, one or more dolphins started swimming around. I even had a mother with baby dolphin joining the fun! Sometimes you just wait a moment, but that’s all part of the experience.
The Dolphin Encounter attendants, located on the boat, will guide you in which direction the pod is heading. At some points, the dolphin pod will start moving away, or they just won’t show anymore interest in a bunch of swimmers. The boat horn will sound, so that’s the time to get back to the boat. Once we’re all back at the rear of the boat, we all turn in the Dolphin spotters.

There they are!

What’s next are another 2 sessions of approx. 15 min each where enjoy swimming in the water, trying to get some attention of the Dusky dolphins. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes they would not care less ha! You laugh, check under water, check above the weather, and there they are again. Only the moment you step back onto the boat, you realise what a wonderful experience you just had. No sh*t: it’s GREAT.

Cocoa, cookies and jumping dolphins

After the swimming part, we quickly put on our warm dry clothes and take some cookies and hot cocoa from the Dolphin Encounter assistants. All swimmers start sharing pictures, videos and funny feelings of what just happened the last 1.5h: that ultimate free moment of being connected with marine wildlife.

At this point, we joined the spectators and we started following the pod by boat. The dolphins seem to be used to boats, as they swim along very closely. But the moment everyone started gazing out of the ocean, is when they decided to start jumping and tumbling around. It’s a way of communicating, keeping parasites of their body, and heck, they’re also just having some FUN. Luckily we took loads of pictures of this great spectacle!

We headed back to the harbour, hopped on the bus and went straight back to the home base. You can hit the showers (provided off charge) around 12.00PM, just in time to enjoy a nice coffee or a lunch at the Dolphin Encounter bar. We needed that drink, to snap out of what seemed like a dream came true!

Some practical information:

  • Get in touch with Dolphin Encounter to show your interest in one of the tours, since the planning of and the number of tours are reduced (earthquake).
  • Tours normally run at 5.30AM, 8.30AM and 12.00PM. The price per person is 175NZD (EUR 115 / USD 125). If you only want to see Dusky Dolphins, it is 90NZD (EUR 58 / USD 63).

TOP TIP: the AA brochure for Christchurch/Canterbury has a voucher for 10NZD off per booking. So we paid 165NZD per person. You can find this brochure in any I-Site across the country.

  • Things you’ll need: bathing suit, sun cream, towel, dry warm clothes, motion sickness pills (if you need), camera (check your battery!), action video camera. If you need floating equipment for action camera, it’s 5NZD rental cost.
  • Kaikoura can be reached by car, by driving approx. 2h north of Christchurch. Due to the recent earthquake (November 2016), the coastal road between Picton and Kaikoura remains closed until end of 2017. A detour via the center of South Island is possible, but be prepared for many hours of driving.
  • Campsites: we stayed at Peketa beach campground, which is a 5-minute drive south of the city. It’s a great campsite, because it’s literally at the beachfront. If you’re lucky, you can see Dusky Dolphins during breakfast! There is also a free campground for Non self-contained camper vans further away from the city (Omihi Campground)

Got any questions or remarks? Did you go swimming with dolphins before? Leave a comment or share your story !