To anyone cruising casually by, we must have sounded like some sort of demented choir.
An out-of-tune, out-of-synch, deranged choir clad in wetsuits and snorkeling gear, bobbing along in the chilly waters of the South Pacific.
But none of us cared. They told us that the dolphins liked singing. And so we sang.
Kaikoura, a small town located on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island, is one of the best places in the country to have encounters with marine life. Here you can go whale watching, see albatross colonies, spot lazy fur seals, and swim with acrobatic dusky dolphins.
This is all because the Hikurangi Trench – a huge deep-sea canyon – lies not far from the Kaikoura coast, enticing all sorts of sea life year-round.
I had been to Kaikoura once before, years ago, but bad weather made whale watching or anything else impossible. This time, I vowed to stay longer and get up-close with some of the area's famed sea life.
First up? Swimming with dolphins!
Before you get all up in arms about dolphinariums and exploitation, let me tell you that interacting with sea life in New Zealand is very different than in other parts of the world. Here, you interact with wild dolphins in their natural environment – on THEIR terms.
Only one company – Dolphin Encounter – has a license to take people out to swim with the dolphins in Kaikoura, and they are restricted to certain hours (did you know that dolphins have “nap time” in the afternoon??), and a certain number of swimmers in the water at any given time.
There's no guarantee that you'll get close to the dolphins since any interaction is left completely up to them. But dusky dolphins are curious, and the ones in Kaikoura are usually friendly. Meaning that there's a pretty good chance you'll get to swim with dolphins in the wild.
The day of my dolphin encounter dawned sunny and incredibly windy. I was warned that the company could only take out strong swimmers that day who could deal with extremely rough seas. I decided to go anyway, as did two dozen other swimmers and a handful of spectators. (I learned to swim when I was a kid, am not afraid of the water, and consider myself a moderately strong swimmer.)
We were driven out to the Dolphin Encounter boats at South Bay and split up into two groups – there's a maximum of 16 swimmers per boat to make sure things aren't too crowded. Then we hit the rocky seas and went to find the dolphins.
The dusky dolphin is a small, spunky species found throughout the South Pacific that calls the waters around Kaikoura home. Pods that number into the hundreds can often be found here, and we were lucky enough to come across one of these huge groups of dolphins.
We put on our flippers and masks, and eagerly climbed down to the ledge of the back of the boat, waiting for the ship's horn that would tell us it was time to jump.
The first swim was nothing short of magical.
We were surrounded by dolphins; by hundreds of them of all sizes, including some newborns that were just a month or two old. It was still early – before 10 a.m. at that point – and many of the dolphins were curious. Some swam right up to your face, close enough to touch (even though you aren't supposed to) – see the video above to see how close they came!
We'd been told on the boat that dolphins are drawn to sound, so we were encouraged to sing and squeal and make any noises we could that might interest them. Any time a dolphin would come near me, I would try to look it in the eye and make lots of noise — I hummed, I squealed (sometimes on purpose, sometimes because I was just so excited), I even sang them parts of the “Flipper” theme song.
And it actually kind of worked. Dolphins were swimming around me in circles, and buzzing under my flippers. They are FAST in the water, but also so very clearly playful.
After more than half an hour in the water, we were called back to the boat. We would jump into the water three more times over the next hour, but they would be quick swims as the large pod of 300+ dolphins began to lose interest and swim away from us.
By 11 a.m., we were back on the boat, changing out of our wetsuits and watching the dolphins from above the water. Dusky dolphins are known for being quite acrobatic, and there were a few that dazzled us with backflips and belly flops – how cool!
I was exhausted after swimming through rough seas for more than an hour, but also on a high from being able to get so close to so many playful dolphins.
This will definitely go down as one of my favorite experiences in New Zealand!
IF YOU GO…
Like I said, there's only ONE company in Kaikoura that operates dolphin tours. You can book a spot with Dolphin Encounter either as a swimmer or a spectator. I would highly recommend booking in advance, especially in the summer – since no one else does these tours and they only take a certain amount of people, spaces can fill up quickly!
You can book this Kaikoura dolphin swimming tour from Christchurch, too.
• Swimmer: $18o NZD for adults, $165 NZD for kids
• Spectator: $95 NZD for adults, $55 NZD for kids
Tours run 3 times daily in the summer (November-April):
• 5:30 a.m.
• 8:30 a.m.
• 12:30 p.m.
(In the winter, they run at 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.)
Tours last about 3 or 3.5 hours, depending on how far you have to go to find the dolphins. You spend about 2-2.5 hours on the boat/in the water (the rest of the time is spent checking in, getting briefed, and putting your gear on).
What to bring
A towel, a change of clothes, seasickness tablets, and an underwater camera! They provide you with a wetsuit and snorkeling gear.
Check out my full New Zealand packing list here.