The waters just off the coast of Kaikoura in New Zealand are the perfect place to discover the delights of diving with dusky dolphins
At that precise moment I was beginning to wonder exactly why I had paid NZ$150 to have a bunch of wild animals hurtling towards me. OK, so I’d thrown myself off a bungy jump ledge just a few days previously. And I’d been known to fling my body down white-water rapids, dodging rocks that poked out of the froth like daggers. But a certified adrenaline junkie, I was not.
The creatures in question, however, despite being as wild as the choppy sea they swam in, were a friendly bunch. It was a huge pod of dusky dolphins. But they were still hurtling towards me. I’d only lifted my head for a couple of seconds from the breathtaking cold of the sea, just off the coast of Kaikoura, when I noticed the 20 or so fins heading not just in my general direction, but right at me.
I had seconds before sea-life impact. Swim away? Stay still? Dive? I decided to swim through the pod, my snorkel pointing to the grey sky and my face down to see the wonderful creatures swarming around me. What a decision it was. Two darted beneath me, just inches below the clinging material of my wetsuit. Then three more weaved their way through the waters, sensing my presence and dodging me with startling precision. It was exhilarating.
Forget dangling from ropes and squatting in rafts, this was pure unadulterated adrenaline. In what seemed like seconds the pod had disappeared. I tipped my body vertical and trod water. A few fins danced on the water’s horizon. The boat, one of a fleet belonging to Dolphin Encounter, sounded its horn to signal to the swimmers to clamber back aboard. The company has been leading tours to swim and watch dolphins since 1989 and is run by a local troupe of dedicated wildlife lovers.
Once back on the boat, we spat out our snorkels, found our breath and collected each other’s stories of one-on-one, or one-on-pod, meetings. Like children we gushed giddily about our new friends. But we were all anxious to splash back into the water and romp around with the duskies. Enough with the humans already - give us the dolphins again. The boat lurched and lunged with the ever-growing swell of the water. We had been warned of a fairly volatile swell and the high chance of sea-sickness. Thankfully, the boat’s skipper had spotted another pod of dolphins and signalled for us to throw our foot-bound flippers into the water and get into the waves, where my body moved with the water and the feeling of sickness subsided.
One of the tips for interacting with the creatures (for we, apparently, were there to entertain them and not them us) was to catch the eye of a dolphin and circle your entire body with it, both of you turning while keeping eye contact, circling, eyeing, circling, eyeing. Yeah, right, I thought, my cynical heart figuring we’d be lucky just to catch sight of a couple of dolphins in the distance. Maybe one would perform a little jump. But back in the ocean there I was, eye-to-eye with an inquisitive dolphin. I kicked to begin turning and amazingly he or she - I’m no expert on dolphin anatomy – turned with me.
We circled three, four times, I can’t remember. All I remember was my heart beating so hard I could feel it throughout my body and my teeth gripping hard on the snorkel as I tried not to break into a massive grin and therefore probably drown. (Although I’m convinced my new little friend would have scooped my limp body out of the water and on to the rocks; clever things, dolphins.) After a while he got bored and broke away to join the rest of the pod. I figured my dolphin swim total to be around 75 dolphins. At around two dollars per animal this was extremely good value. Sadly, it was time to get out.
We bobbed up and down on the waves aboard the boat and attempted to change into dry clothes while simultaneously holding towels to protect modesties. The cheeky dolphins circled the boat as if trying to sneak a peek. Balancing, undressing, drying, dressing and trying not to flash the entire boat proved too much for everyone’s stomachs. Within minutes the back of the boat was crowded with bodies clinging to buckets, faces a dozen different shades of green. I hate ginger biscuits. But I took deep breaths and shoved a few down my throat. Ginger is brilliant at quelling sea-sickness. Ginger biscuits and greenness aside, it was an unforgettable dolphin encounter.