I came to New Zealand originally for one thing and one thing only – to experience incredible opportunities and swimming with dolphins was certainly one of them! This had been the dream of my life from my earliest memories and New Zealand seemed to be the place which offered me multiple opportunities for swimming with these amazing dolphins and realising this dream.
I have now swam with just about every dolphin-swim company that exists in New Zealand and have also had several unplanned encounters while out surfing and swimming. I know I am lucky.
For anyone thinking about signing up for this experience let me urge you to do it. I appreciate not everyone is as dolphin crazy as me – my partner Chris was the perfect example. He came originally with me without any great enthusiasm. However, after his first encounter, which had a profound and deeply moving effect on him (much to his surprise), he became as much of a dolphin swim addict as me.
One of my first dolphin swims was with Black Cat Cruises at Akaroa on the South Island and now, several swims with them and others later, they remain my favourite New Zealand company by a long, long way. They are fun, enthusiastic, professional, highly ethical and offer something extra special – a swim with the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin – the Hector’s dolphin – found only in the coastal waters of New Zealand.
I got to know the Black Cat folk quite well on this first visit. Out first planned trip had to be cancelled due to adverse weather and the second was aborted after the skipper decided that the towering wave faces which our small boat seemed to climb horizontally were just too dangerous. Time wasn’t an issue for me so I hung around Akaroa waiting for the weather to clear and got lucky on my third booked trip.
On arriving at the Black Cat’s wharf base we were all kitted out with thick wetsuits and boots so we would be able to endure the chilly waters and also given snorkels and masks. Each boat trip has a maximum number of people they can take out to swim – the regulations on such things being quite rightly strict and governed by conservation laws which are aimed at protecting the dolphins. Boats may also include those who want to see the dolphins but who, for whatever reason, don’t want to get in the water with them.
The boat ride is short – sometimes very short if the dolphins are hanging around the sheltered waters of the harbour. As we headed out our guide told us a little about the Hector’s dolphins and asked us all to look out for the distinct rounded dorsal fin – shaped like a Micky Mouse ear.
On this occasion we headed out into open ocean to find the dolphins. Very quickly one fin was spotted and quickly succeeded by several more, all coming to check us out. The boat crew decide whether or not the dolphins are going to hang around before getting their excited guests into the water. Those same laws previously mentioned dictate that only two attempted drops are allowed so they try not to make wrong calls. These dolphins were definitely up for playing and one by one we entered the water which was so cold it initially left me gasping for breath.
We had been told not to all bunch together because that looked threatening to the dolphins and to sing into our snorkels because this seemed to attract them. I sang for all I was worth with much teeth chattering and swallowing of water, much to the amusement of everyone else.
Watching above the water is magical as you make out fins coming towards you and then disappearing but getting face down with the snorkel turns the experience into something else entirely. The dolphins come really close, circling around the swimmers, diving under them, clicking and whistling and sometimes making straight for your mask before veering off at the last minute. Getting eye to eye with a dolphin is something for which I have no words, so I won’t even try. Touching the dolphins is forbidden but sometimes the dolphins touch you – they don’t have any rules to adhere to.
Sometimes the time in the water is brief – perhaps 10 minutes or so, as has happened to me on subsequent swims. On this occasion I realised I was beginning to go numb and feeling a little tired. I noticed that my partner Chris and I were actually the only two people left in the water as one by one everyone else had succumbed to the cold. I was to discover why – we had been in the water an hour, the maximum allowed (it felt far less) – many dolphins present the whole time. When we climbed out, having to be assisted as we were blue with cold, the dolphins seemed reluctant to let us go even then; hanging around the boat and then following us back into the harbour.
People react differently after a dolphin swim. Some sit in contemplative or even stunned silence; others chatter away almost overcome with excitement even though you hadn’t heard them utter a word while getting kitted up or on the boat ride out. It is rare that some-one isn’t moved beyond all they had expected.
On the way back, the boat stops briefly so that hot chocolate and coffee can be handed round and then it is back to base for showers as scaldingly hot as you can take to try and get some sensation back into your benumbed limbs.
Black Cat present you with a certificate to commemorate your swim and there is also the option of having photos taken of your experience which are presented in a lovely little package. The little shop even sells cuddly Hector’s dolphins or other dolphin related souvenirs if you are so inclined. Personally, I don’t need photos or a key-ring (although I am rather proud of my certificates) – my memento is etched indelibly into my memory and is one of my most precious possessions.
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