Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Swimming with the Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura

The Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura
The horn sounds, you slip into the water, lower your head and are stunned by the effort it takes to breathe. Two layers of 7mm-thick neoprene, plus the flap of the wetsuit hood, combined with a water temperature of about 50°F and the unnatural feel of breathing through a tube is something of a shock to the system. You force yourself to calm down, slow your breathing and start kicking away from the boat.

Within about a minute, your body has adjusted and you're breathing more or less normally again, so you start making noise, as instructed; since Michael Bublé's "Haven't Met You Yet" is the first thing that comes to mind, you sing it into your snorkel (or rather, you sing the notes and leave the words at "doo doo doo de da doo doo doo," since trying to sing the actual lyrics would be completely incomprehensible with a hollow piece of rubber and plastic in your mouth).

Less than sixty seconds later, a sleek arc in shades of grey bullets past and it's all you can do to keep your singing from turning into a squeal of excitement. You sing a bit louder and the grey bullet comes back. You follow it and suddenly you're swimming in a tight circle in the chilly South Pacific, trying to keep pace with a curious Dusky Dolphin who's come to investigate this unfamiliar squawking.

This is what a Dolphin Encounter with Encounter Kaikoura is all about and it is, in a word, amazing.

Part of Kaikoura's coastline and a pair of dolphins.
Before you ever set foot on a boat, Encounter Kaikoura is very clear about what its Dolphin Encounter is meant to be: an opportunity to interact with wild animals in their own environment, on their terms. Tracy, the tour leader and Pete, the bus driver and boat captain, know the habits of Kaikoura's Dusky Dolphins and know both where to look and what to look for, but it's made very clear that this isn't a Sea World exhibit and nothing is guaranteed, although every effort to get you into the water and interacting with dolphins will be made.

Since I was heading over toward Abel Tasman National Park the same day, I opted for the 5:30am tour, a summer-only option. It's a great time of day, Tracy told us, because the dolphins are heading back toward land after a night of hunting and like to get together and socialize, which means they're usually grouped into fairly large pods. We started seeing dolphins swimming and leaping within about 10 minutes of leaving Kaikoura's South Bay, all heading in the same direction. Roughly 10 minutes later, we were all lined up along the back of the boat, hoods, masks and snorkels in place, ready to slip into the water at Pete’s signal.

Several of the dolphins swimming in front of the boat on the
way back to shore.

Keeping track of time underwater is never easy, but I’d estimate I spent about 45 minutes in the water, and I was rarely out of the company of at least one dolphin for more than a minute at a time. The visibility was terrible (the dolphins were virtually invisible until they were less than five meters away, startling a laugh out of me more than once when they suddenly appeared in front of, next to or beneath me), the water was freezing, the thick wetsuits and hoods were horribly awkward…and I couldn’t stop smiling.

After the first several minutes, I started to notice the dolphins’ individual markings and recognized one in particular that kept coming back – he or she had a starburst-shaped marking or scar just in front of his or her blowhole and seemed to like Sara Bareilles’ “King of Anything.” I repeated the same four or five songs throughout my time in the water and within a few lines of starting that one, I’d usually find myself swimming in human-paced circles with the dolphin with the starburst marking.

One of the mother and calf pairs that came to see the humans.
Some of the dolphins were both more interested in and more sensitive to humans than others and would swim slowly enough that I could keep up for a bit, while others would bullet past, whirl in a circle so quick that I couldn’t finish half of one in the same time, then zoom back out to sea. Tracy told us later that there had been something like 200 in the whole pod, but they mostly swam in pairs or groups of half a dozen or so.

Several times, I found myself in the midst of half a dozen dolphins at once, swimming in a circle of flashing grey and silver as I did my best to keep singing, rather than break into delighted laughter. I even circled briefly with a mother and a calf no more than three months old, feeling vaguely like a zoo exhibit but ecstatic at the sight of the baby, not quite yet as graceful as its mother.

The dolphins are incredibly playful and liked to leap alongside the boat.
Every moment was a dream come true. The dolphins were enchanting – wild, but willing to share their habitat and fearlessly curious of the strange, awkward creatures who’d descended into their world. They kept slightly less than an arm’s length away, watching us with wise eyes. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’ll relive the beauty of the memories for the rest of my life, always with just a little disbelief that I really did once swim with dolphins.


Encounter Kaikoura said...

Loved reading this blog! You really captured what our tour experience is all about! Thank you so much for sharing! Thrilled to read you made some memories to last a lifetime with us here in Kaikoura, with all the thanks to the incredible dusky dolphins! With fond regards, from all the crew at Dolphin Encounter, Kaikoura! :-)

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I'm glad you liked the post! :-) Thank you so much for the fantastic experience, it really was one of the most wonderful things I've ever had the opportunity to do.

Heather said...

Sounds like a blast!! I think I'd be freaked out with limited visibility but it would be worth it.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

It was a blast, I loved it! The limited visibility was a little disorienting, but there really wasn't anything else in the water other than us and the dolphins, so I got used to it pretty quickly.

Kirsten Alana said...

I swam with dolphins in the Caribbean but something was a little off about it. They weren't truly in their natural habitat.

I think I would LOVE this!!!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I think you'd love it too! The fact that it was the dolphins' choice to interact with us, in their own environment, definitely made it a one-of-a-kind experience for me.

Ayngelina said...

I like this approach to swimming with dolphins, it should be their choice not ours to put them in pens and make them do tricks.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I've wanted to swim with dolphins since I read Madeleine L'Engle's "A Ring of Endless Light" as a kid but didn't feel comfortable with the idea of the enclosed dolphin swims that are so popular in Florida and parts of the Caribbean, so finding out about Encounter Kaikoura was a dream come true. Like you said, it should be their choice, not ours - and it's an amazing experience to have a dolphin choose to swim with you!