Kaikoura: Swimming with Dolphins

New Zealand is popular for dolphin viewing and at many places around New Zealand there are operators who will take you out to the open sea to watch and even swim with them! We were headed to Kaikoura which has one of the best dolphin spotting rates in the world. And we would even get to swim with them in the open sea. I was really excited about this; my father was quite nervous that we would swim beyond the continental shelf but in the end, I wore him down. The companies that take you out to the sea do slow down from beginning of May, so we were hard pressed to find ourselves a slot. They do it with good reasons as the dolphins start to go further from shore and start to make ‘Mega-Pods’ and you have a lot less luck finding those.

Anyways, we drove into Kaikoura at around 9 in the morning for the swim which was scheduled at 10 o’clock. We signed in and they gave us tags. Red tags for swimmers and orange tags for watchers.The sign-in process was very smooth and we also signed up for a Go Pro for me to hold and try to get some shots of dolphins underwater. After sometime they called the red-tags over to change into gear up for our swim. They gave us wetsuits and flippers and for people with glasses like me and my dad, they provided powered snorkels. The wetsuits comprised of three parts, a onesie type thing, a coat and a cap. The glasses went over the cap and the flippers went on your feet. Since we were going in winter the wet suits were extra thick for protection against the cold water. The suits were nice and comfy and the extra padding didn’t add as much bulk as I thought it would.

A tip I found on the internet is to make sure there is about one finger wide gap between the wet suit and your body. The wetsuit shrink-wraps to your body once it gets wet so if it is too tight you might find it difficult to breathe in them.

After suiting up we went to a briefing room where we were shown a video about the rules of play and tips on how to get the dolphins closer to you. There was a clip in the video of a woman being circled by a dolphin which set the bar very high for dolphin experience, but it is very easy to realize that such things happen rarely. In the safety side it’s quite simple. The dolphins are residents of the ocean, we are visitors who are there to see them so be good guests, don’t attempt touching the dolphins, stay close to the group, follow the instructions from the boat captain. At this point I was starting to understand that this was a real thing and some worry crept into my system but thankfully in that moment the excitement completely took over.

After the briefing we loaded into a van for the short ride to the harbour and at the harbour onto a boat. In the video they had described how the snorkelling expedition would work. First, we sat in the main compartment and set of into the sea. Once a dolphin pod was spotted the swimmers would launch from the stern. The crew were very helpful about the using the snorkels and if people were not confident they offered a refresher course. In no time we sped off into the open sea in search of Dusky Dolphins which was the Dolphin common to this area.

We got incredibly lucky with dolphins, finding our pod in under 10 minutes! Once again it was quite rare and we were all very excited about it. Sometimes the search for dolphins can take up to 50 minutes but like I mentioned, Kaikoura has a pretty strong sighting record. Since we found the dolphins so quickly we were able to swim a total of five times which is quite high but still I had fun in every single swim.

Onwards to the swimming. The first thing we did was get ready by sitting on the ledge at the stern of the boat and dipped our feet in the water to get acclimatized with the water temperature. I was starting to get a bit nervous about jumping into the ocean to swim with dolphins still the feelings were overshadowed by excitement. The moment the horn blast went off everybody leapt into the water and sped off toward the dolphins that were swimming and jumping about. The crew really stressed that we should not stray too far away from the group so in the first round most of my attention was focussed on keeping up with the others.

I was expecting dolphins jumping around me or at least on sea level but I soon realized that below the water is actually where I spotted them. I spotted a quite a few dolphins but I’m sure I missed some since I was too focussed on keeping up with the group.

In the next swim I was more sensible and paid more attention to my surroundings as opposed to the group. This round I probably had the most luck, I saw a lot of dolphins and most of the shots I got on the GoPro were during the second swim. It was fascinating seeing the creatures cutting through the water and swimming around. I think most of the group was chasing the dolphins as they swam away and they wanted to get closer to the dolphins but that is quite impossible. They are wild animals and won’t come running up to you like pets.

After five swims we pulled ourselves out of the water reluctantly which is when I realized it was very cold. Thankfully the boat had hot water jets which warmed us up. I was absolutely freezing and it really felt like I was defrosting. We then changed into dry clothes and joined the watchers on the upper deck and the boat captain gave a talk about the habits of the Dusky Dolphins.

The dolphins were properly surrounding the ship and though it was nice to see so many I couldn’t help but wonder where they were when I was in the water. We also spotted some albatrosses and learned a lot about how dolphins live in these seas. The guide also told us about carnivorous dolphins or orcas that are spotted occasionally. An interesting habit of dolphins is making these high arching jumps out of the water which looks like a sport but is probably a means for communication.

Fun Fact – We started our first swim in 15-20-metre-deep water but that escalated to 200m by the end when we went in for our last swim!

After we had spent a fair bit of time enjoying watching the dolphins the boat captain piloted us back to the dock and we rode back to the Dolphin Encounter office on the bus. We returned our Go-pro and got the clips it. Most of the images of dolphins in this blog are from that.

My final view on the experience is that is a must do for anyone that enjoys being in the water. My father was very nervous to start with but after just one dip he loved it and kept going back for more. It’s really hard not to want to do it again and again.

Kaikoura is a proper hub for marine life with albatross, whales, dolphins, and seals residing in the waters in large numbers. There is a seal watching spot on the coast where seals come up in the evening. We first saw one seal sitting by itself on the edge of the sea on a rock but before we could get a good look it flipped of the edge. We spotted another seal a little later that didn’t run away when we got closer. We managed to get some pictures but I got too close, and it growled menacingly. Instantly I turned and ran for it. I am not trifling with any animals that are twice my weight and feed on squid. The seals we spotted were New Zealand Fur Seals or Kekeno in Māori. All these experiences made Kaikoura a major highlight of the NZ trip for me and my parents.

My tips on swimming with dolphins –

– The swimmer group may stray away from you but don’t obsess over keeping up with them and look around for dolphins.

– You will have better luck spotting dolphins underwater so keep looking down. Don’t expect dolphins to come up and jump around you. They are marine animals; they swim around you and under you.

– Follow the rules, leave the boat, and return promptly with the horn blasts and follow orders as fast as possible.

– The ground around the seals is mushy and wet so watch where you step.

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