Swimming With Wild Dolphins in New Zealand

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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.

Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand

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.

Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand

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.

Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Getting dropped into the water with 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.

Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Waiting to jump in

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!

Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand

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.

Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand

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!

Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura, New Zealand

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!

Swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand


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.

How much

• 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.

READ NEXT: 8 Unique (and Ethical) Wildlife Encounters to Have in New Zealand

Is this an experience YOU would want to have in New Zealand?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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37 Comments on “Swimming With Wild Dolphins in New Zealand

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  1. Incredible! I have technically swum with dolphins, pink river dolphins in the Amazon basin of Bolivia, but they weren’t interested in us and moved away very quickly. It is my dream to swim with wild dolphins and so far, despite visiting places in NZ, Australia and Hawaii where it usually possible to do so, I have been in the right place and the wrong time. I would love to do it in Kaikoura when I am back in NZ next year, maybe I will finally get lucky 🙂

      You should definitely try it in Kaikoura! They seem to have really good success rates with getting you in the water with the dolphins – and the singing definitely seemed to help! 😉

    Awesome! Thanks for the info. I was considering doing that, but I am convinced now. I just have to pick the right time for it. Hopefully they will still be there in the autumn. I still have loads of time left in New Zealand so I am taking it slowly! Greetings from Queenstown!

      Pods live offshore of Kaikoura year-round, so you should still be able to go in the fall! Visit Kaikoura regardless – it’s such a nice, relaxing place to spend a couple of days!

    Beautiful dolphins, they are such incredible creatures. I recently did some research on dolphin activities for a blog article I wrote after a terrible experience. What I did read though (including info on the Right Tourism website) did try to deter people from even swimming with wild dolphins, as some research has suggested that these kind of encounters are still disturbing their habitats and daily life. I don’t know anything about the specific place you’re writing about, but perhaps it would be worth doing some more reading up on the activity in general. Take care.

      They’re very dedicated to conservation and respecting sea life in Kaikoura, and I know the company follows very strict rules. They take up to 32 swimmers out up to 3 times per day. They aren’t allowed to chase the dolphins, or entice them in any way. And they are limited to certain hours that they can be out there with them. I was actually really impressed by how conscious they are of the animals and their habits.

      But yes, definitely worth reading up on these sorts of things before signing up for them!

    Amanda this looks amazing! Having lived in NZ previously I have no doubt that wildlife encounters are completely different than in other parts of the world. I would have loved to have done this, but unfortunately never made it to Kaikoura. I’ll have to come back! 🙂

      Well next time you are in NZ (because I’m convinced it’s a place that always pulls people back), definitely make time to visit Kaikoura! You can swim with the tiny Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa, too, which I’ve also heard is awesome!

    THAT LOOKS AMAZING! And I love that’s it’s in the wild in their natural habitat. So cool.

      Yup, no tanks or aquariums here! It does mean that you need to be okay with swimming in the open ocean… but it’s totally worth it, if you ask me!

    I did this last year when I was in NZ and it was without a doubt one of my top highlights! Got dropped into a pod of over 300 and it was totally worth braving the rather chilly waters to swim with them!

      Yes, we were with a pod of more than 400, and it was incredible! It’ll definitely rank up there with one of the coolest things I’ve done in NZ!

    Wow that looks like an extremely great experience, to see dolphins in their natural habitat instead of the zoo. I have actually seen them in the ocean a few times during my time when I was working ona ship here close to Iceland, Dolphins are truly magnificent creatures.

      They’re so beautiful, and so playful! Dusky dolphins are also quite acrobatic, so it was cool to watch them jump out of the water again and again! It’s always better to see animals like this in their natural habitat.

    Love this! Isn’t it the most amazing thing?? I never knew about dolphins liking singing but listening to them communicate underwater was the most thrilling thing!! One thing I was amazed at was how they seem to just effortlessly glide through the water – yet we were swimming as fast as we could, totally wearing ourselves out, and couldn’t keep up with them in the slightest!

      I know! They swim SO much faster than you realize!

    Wow. Words can’t express how much I’d love to have the same experience! The dolphins are gorgeous, and I’m sure this was an experience you’ll always cherish!

      It’s definitely something I won’t soon forget! Such a cool experience.

    A fellow Ohio-an! O-H… I’m from Cincinnati and love reading about other travelers’ adventures. Thank you so much for sharing. Do you ever get the opportunity to share a cup of coffee and stories with other travel bloggers? Christina and I are eager to get on the road to hit all 49 land-attached states and Canada before venturing off internationally. While hanging out with the Kiwis, what would you say has been your most awesome place and best experience so far?

      Yes, of course I’m always up for a cup of coffee with fellow travelers/bloggers! If you’re ever in the Cleveland area, let me know! 🙂

      As for my NZ favorites… that’s SO hard. Tops definitely have to be visiting Hobbiton, swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura, flying over the mountains in a tiny plane, hiking on a glacier, and living in Wellington.

    If out-of-tune, out-of-synch singing seems to attract the dolphins, I’m emailing Dolphin Encounter my résumé along with a cover letter first thing in the morning. I’d bring their success rate up to 100%!

      Hahaha! We definitely all sounded really funny in the water. But it was worth it, because it DID seem to work!

    Haha, I would have totally been up for singing to the dolphins!

    I recently had the chance to go on a dolphin trip but opted for the waka experience instead. I think it was a better choice for me as apparently it was freeeeezing (and this was up north too! just last month!) The photos people got were pretty awesome too. Must blog about the waka trip.

      Ooo a waka trip sounds super cool! And don’t worry – the dolphins will still be there next time! 🙂

    Wow – that’s incredible! I’ve always refused to visit dolphinariums but THIS is something I would consider going to NZ for. I love, love animals but I hate the way they are treated in most tourist places. What a refreshing company!

      You’ll find that MOST of the animal-related tourism that exists in New Zealand is like this. They are incredibly conscious about conservation of all sorts – part of the reason I love the country so much!

    This looks AMAZING. I just moved to Australia and plan to visit New Zealand in 2015 so I’m adding this to my list :).

      It was definitely worth it! And Kaikoura in general is certainly worth a few days!

    […] bird, visit the penguins and albatross that call the Otago Peninsula home, go whale watching (or dolphin swimming) in Kaikoura, and play with some of the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins (the […]

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