My childhood in the Midwest included trips to the ocean where I would admire sea animals, but specifically dolphins. I remember pretending to be a dolphin swimming with my arms at my sides in the our backyard pool. As a family, we would often visit The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago just so I could get my dolphin fix. When I was in grade school, I even had my room decorated with dolphins. Picture a room covered with dolphin wallpaper, bedding, lights, trinkets, and all sorts dedicated to the sea creature. They have always held a fascinating charm to me- truly an amazing animal.
Growing up, I’ve become vegetarian and have a real love for animals. This has also lead me to refuse organizations which mistreat animals. I highly recommend you watch The Cove; a documentary about dolphin hunting practices in Japan, and also reflect on your own participation in animal captivity. My personal care and education from this film has led me to choose loving dolphins from a distance.
Before leaving for our trip around the world, I had listened to several podcasts about New Zealand. They would mention how you can swim with wild dolphins in Kaikoura or Akaroa. They noted the companies are approved from the NZ Department of Conservation and do not use any methods to attract the dolphins. These excursions basically bring you to a pod of dolphins and then the dolphins have the choice to interact with you or not. Since arriving in New Zealand, I have been admiring their methods for wildlife conservation. Everything feels untouched and so clean here. It is clear they make conservation a high priority in everything they do; so I knew the tour would not be mistreating the dolphin pod.
A couple of days before arriving in Kaikoura, we looked on the internet for companies to go swimming with dolphins. Turns out there is only one, Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura and they were booked for the one day we would be in town. The tour was also way out of our budget. A bit let down, we still booked our campsite and drove to Kaikoura. Kaikoura is known for having diverse marine life other than dolphins, like whales, seals, and albatross birds, so I knew we would still have a good time.
When we were checking into our campsite Kaikoura Top 10 Holiday Park, I asked the receptionist if there were any other dolphin tours we could go on while visiting since the 3 daily tours offered by Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura the next day were booked. She said there is only the one dolphin excursion in Kaikoura but she could call and put us on a waitlist for the 3 tours for tomorrow. I said, yes please! It was out of our hands, and we figured if they didn’t call, we could just do something else and enjoy the beautiful area. Alas, about an hour later a woman from Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura called and said they did not receive full payment from some of the people on their bookings so we could do the 5:30am or 12:30pm tour the following day if we came in immediately to pay and fill out the medical form. We were ecstatic! We chose to do the 5:30am sunrise tour, since we heard a bunch of reviews saying that time of day is best. Honestly, that evening, I could hardly sleep I was so excited. I kept waking up nervous that I’d slept past my alarm, only to see that it was 3am, 4am and finally 5am!
We arrived at Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura while it was still dark. They brought us into a room to get fitted for a full body wetsuit, snorkel, goggles, and flippers. After putting on our gear, we sat in a small auditorium to watch a film about what we would be doing. The film informed us that the Dusky Dolphins are wild and they could just swim away and not want to hang out with us. And obviously, they could get close, but do not touch them!
After the informational video, we got onto a bus for a quick 5 minute ride to the harbor where the boat was. Still dark out, we boarded the boat and headed out to the open sea. They said were not sure where the dolphins are yet. They do not have any special equipment just eyes and knowledge about the pod that lives in the area. As the sun started to rise, we all kept our eyes peeled on the horizon for signs of dolphins. After about 30 minutes, we found a few which enjoyed racing with the boat for a bit.
After we raced with dolphins for about 15 minutes, they announced we need to get our gear on because we will be getting in the water soon. So we all hurried to grab our snorkels and flippers then gathered at the stern of the boat. Patiently waiting to jump in the water, we watched dolphins swimming all around the boat. When we heard the loud horn go off we all jumped in and started swimming! The water was freezing, my heart was racing and it was a bit chaotic at first, but then all the sudden there were dolphins surrounding us! They would come out of nowhere and swim around you. There would be multiple dolphins coming from every direction! It was magical.
We were also advised to make noises or even sing a song through our snorkel to encourage the dolphins to play. They also advised making eye contact with a dolphin if it came close then start swimming in circles to have it follow you. So we were all singing, and spinning in circles! Every time a dolphin came near me we made eye contact and spun in circles until I was dizzy. It was an incredible feeling that made my entire body smile.
The horn rang again, signaling us to get back on the boat. All the snorkelers boarded and then we drove for about 5 minutes until we caught up with the pod. The horn rang again and with less chaos than the first time we all jumped in again keeping our eyes in the water looking for dolphins. I’d be spinning with one dolphin and then others would come join- an equal motion of play. We repeated this process for about an hour for a total of 4 times.
After we were done spinning around with the dolphins, we boarded the boat and took off the wetsuits and changed into our clothes. There were still hundreds of dolphins (our crew member guessed 500!!) surrounding the boat jumping out of the water doing flips and racing the boat! We all enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate and a ginger cookie while watching the dolphins play before the boat left back to the harbor. It was truly an incredible morning I will never forget.