Entertaining Dolphins in New Zealand

"Get ready to jump in," my guide Cindy yelled to my nervous group. My heart pounded hard as I approached the edge of the boat. I was about to swim with dolphins.

Almost everyone who visits New Zealand knows about Kaikoura as the place to view marine life. The city became famous for its whale watching trips and its swimming with seals and dolphins experience tours. Located on the northeast side of the South Island, Kaikoura lies on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. This area is host to an array of ocean animals, including the magnificent Sperm Whale, Killer Whales (Orcas), Minke Humpback, Pilot Whales, Bottle Nose, Dusky and common Dolphins and Blue Penguins.

I have always dreamed of approaching whales in their natural habitat and here I was in one of the most accessible places to view them. As soon as I reached Kaikoura, wasting little time, I reserved a spot on a whale watching tour for the following day.

Every morning, spotter planes fly over the bays surrounding the peninsula to locate the different pods of marine mammals. Once they are located, if at all, the boats head out to that area. I was in the tour company's office waiting with the rest of the anxious tourists for the morning report. The thrilling news soon arrived. A large group of Sperm Whales have been located.


We were divided into groups and sent off to our boats. Having some inside information from one of the workers, I made sure to get onto the only zodiac employed by the company. As it turns out, these are the fastest boats and are allowed closer to the whales than the bigger boats. I was among a handful of other excited people hanging on to the rails of the boat and getting drenched as it glided over the water toward the whales.

The captain, an elderly man and a veteran of the business, maneuvered the small craft with extraordinary precision. Being on the fastest boat, we reached the whales first as they emerged from the deep waters. As other boats arrived, we were already heading out on are way to other sites.

The first encounter was electrifying. First, a white cloud of water exploded up on the horizon as the whale surfaced. Then, as we approached, the enormous dimensions of these elegant giants became apparent. Our captain rambled information regarding the Sperm Whale, such as its size can reach 55 feet, but most of us were too busy photographing or admiring them to really listen.    

Sperm whale    After a few minutes swimming at the surface, the whale signaled its intent to dive. The whale tested the waters by submerging for a second, filled its huge lungs with air, arced its back and dived. This is when the shutters of cameras started clattering rapidly. The huge tail of the whale extended way out of the water as it dived and, with a slick motion, disappeared under the water.

My group was fortunate, according to our knowledgeable captain, since one of our encounters included the largest male whale in the area, measuring close to 45 feet long. On the way back we stopped by the many islands that dot the bay and viewed colonies of seals, sea lions and many types of birds.    

That night at the campground, I met other backpackers. We exchanged information and experiences and, through their  remarkable stories, I decided to swim with dolphins.
Only ten of us went on the excursion, to minimize the impact on the dolphins. Outfitted with wet suits, snorkels, masks and fins we walked to the docks and loaded onto the boat.
Everyone was edgy and nervous. We were all extremely anxious to reach the pod of Dusky dolphins that were spotted nearby. Along the way, Cindy described some of the characteristics, behavior and biology of the dolphins as our skipper brought us in front of the pod.
Once again, good fortune was with me. We encountered three pods of close to 400 dolphins. The shear number of these playful animals pumped adrenaline through my body. I put on my snorkel, mask and fins, approached the water swarming with acrobatic dolphins and jumped into their realm.    


There I was in the middle of the cold ocean, warmed by the site of wild dolphins surrounding me. Streaks of silver passed by on all sides, while dolphins leaped out of the water flipping and somersaulting over me. I was overtaken by their grace, majestic beauty and playfulness. I dived under the water to join them in their domain. A curious Dusky swam up to me, placed his dark nose to my mask and seemed to smile (well all dolphins seem to smile but this one was laughing). The truth be told, I could not erase the smile off my face either.
The hundreds of dolphins soon disappeared. I got on the boat, filled my wet suit with warm water and joined in the ecstatic discussion that followed.

Our skipper took off again and Cindy kept us educated with more stories. We reached ahead of the pod once more, and prepared to jump in. "Don't forget to sing to the dolphins" was Cindy's advise Sing to the dolphins? With my singing capabilities I would be swimming alone. But as Cindy put it, "you are here to entertain the dolphins, not the other way around."

While I was swimming, I started humming a tune and soon enough a dolphin came to play. We played follow the leader. I turned in circles on the surface of the water and he would do the same below me. I would change direction and so did he. It was unbelievable. I was playing with a dolphin, or, as Cindy said, maybe he was playing with me. My new found friend not only happily joined in the games, he also joined in on the singing. High pitched squeals and squeaks rang underwater all around me. Once again the dolphins took off, in search of more food, or perhaps better entertainment.

Adding to the splendor, the dolphins gave a parting show with an incredible display of gravity defying ability. They flipped and twirled through the air, splashing and playing as they moved on.
For days, I could not remove the smile from my face.

The dolphin experience was more than an encounter with wildlife, it was a spiritual connection between species. I was able to communicate with them and they communicated with me.