Kaikoura, a town little known outside New Zealand, is really nothing much to look at. It’s a small seaside settlement, much smaller than its neighboring cities on South Island – Queenstown, Christchurch or Dunedin. It’s not on a typical tourist’s list except as a place to stay the night on the way to Christchurch from Picton. But to those who know, it offers something unmatched in this whole island country. Besides being the best place for whale-watching in New Zealand (maybe even the Southern Hemisphere), it offers coastal walks where you catch your own dinner (crayfish), llama trekking, hunting safaris, even swimming with shore seals.
But the reason I am here is to do something a little crazier, something involving not just observing and photographing, but actually interacting with marine mammals – dolphins. Swimming with them. And they are not tamed either, they are Dusky Dolphins, known for their interactive behavior and acrobatic leaps.
So you get up early one bleak and chilly November morning, and head up to Dolphin Encounters, where you put on a full neoprene wet-suit and listen to a presentation of what to expect. You go by boat; once a pod has been sighted, the captain blows a whistle and you go in the water, another whistle you climb aboard. You swim for such time that they are around. Then we search for the next pod. Etcetera.
So, off we go. Within 10 minutes the captain casually points out the port window –
“We have Little John making a beeline to his feeding grounds again this morning”.
I thought – Little John, hmm, sounds like an old albatross. Then we looked out over the port railing –
He swam astride for nearly 10 minutes without a care in the world. Twice going underneath the boat. When the Korean girl next to me asked why my teeth were chattering, I snapped back – “Haven’t you seen Jaws? That’s how it starts! First he goes below, then he takes the barrels below, then he takes everyone below, and then you have to be very accurate with your last shot!”
She shook her head.
“Oh, I thought maybe because of the rain”
Damn it. That would have been a more manly answer.
Anyway, before I could start her on my Moby Dick analogy, he dived and that was that.
Except that was not exactly that.
The captain then told us how he once swallowed an entire dolphin in one gulp (the whale, not the captain) – while there were swimmers in the waters. And the fact that dolphins will never be in the same area as a killer whale – the food chain or something – so our swimming today might as well be with each other. And if that be the case, then we all are just wasting a perfectly good heated pool in our hotels, instead of chattering our teeth here and scaring innocent Korean girls with Jaws analogies. I really liked the captain. He reminded me of my mother. Succinct and to the point.
He then explained a couple of things while scanning the ocean with his binoculars. They are curious and very playful (the dolphins, not the captain). When you are swimming in the same area as them, they’ll come and investigate. They’ll do flips, jump over you and swim right between your legs (!). So there’s never any need to panic.
(Every eye turned to me. Hell, what did I do wrong?)
It took the captain about 30 minutes to find a pod, and with one blow of the whistle, we jumped in the drink. They circle you once and then swim right under you making that typical “creeeecreeee” sound.
Like what you seen in Jaws 3. (This time I didn’t tell the Korean girl, I kept it to myself).
After a few minutes of being clueless, and considering the stinging 16 degree water temperature, it actually turns out to be fun. Contrary to what I thought, it’s not like playing around with sheep. They are really sharp. The dolphins, not the sheep. You put your hand out underwater enticing them with some imaginary object, and they’ll just dive under you and investigate the next colourful swimmer. You flap your hands wildly, they mimic that action with their side fins; then wait for you to do something else. You hesitate for 5 seconds, and there’re gone. So, I’m thinking – short attention spans, good eye for detail and highly intelligent. Right, wives are like that.
They question that arises then is how do you keep them interested in one area without swimming away? Here is the catch – they will only swim around you till their curiosity is satisfied. After that, like any other being, they’ll find something else to do. In order to keep them around, you will have to entertain them. My daughter is like that. Anything after 60 seconds is boring for her. Well, make that 10 seconds for dolphins.
So, here’s what you do………….
You make sounds. Loud shrieking sounds. Like a monkey on Prozac getting laid in Disneyland. Think Jim Carey constipated but trying to get it out anyway.
You make crazy body gestures. Turning, spinning, and flapping. A bit like MC Hammer, but underwater, and with thinner pyjamas. Remember, you are today’s entertainment. They’re just spectators. They react to awkward movements the same as we react to Sunny Deol’s dancing. Or Paris Hiltons’ singing. Or Lady Gaga’s makeup. During one my, ahem, more colourful dance sequences underwater, I could swear I saw one of them mouth the words – ” What the fudge??!!!”
If you manage to do all this – shouting, flipping, waving, screaming (incidentally, all things associated with a stroke), the rewards are amazing. They really look you in the eye for a split second, and then swim around you. Once they are done with you, they go to the next swimmer. Sometimes the younger ones will do back-flips and jump straight over you. At one point when I was looking around to see where they’ve gone (they swim really fast), I suddenly saw one flapping his side fins at me. He remembered my face and the way I behaved! This time he initiated it.
After about 15 minutes of playing, they get bored and swim away. The whistle blows and we search for the next pod. That day we ended up swimming with 2 separate pods for a good half hour. The captain then calls it a day and the boat turns around.
When the time comes to go back to a world where you are the dominant species, you realize how humbling this experience was – to become beings that are at the center of attention – for wild animals! The reverse of what a zoo is.
Except that these animals treat us so much better in their own environment, than we do in ours.
That little lesson will remain with you for the rest of your life.
Kaikoura is located in the Canterbury region on the east coast of South Island, New Zealand. It’s about 2 ½ hour drive from Christchurch and 2 hours from Picton (from where you jump over to North Island).
Dolphin Encounter office is No. 96 on the Esplanade, just south on the road from the I-site information centre.
Adult Swimming NZ$ 170
Adult Watching NZ$ 90