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People are drawn to New Zealand for many reasons – for me it was simple; I wanted to swim with dolphins in the wild. Thanks to an ocean environment literally teeming with life, New Zealand offered me one of the best chances for doing that on the planet – believe me, I'd done my homework on this.
Now, after several trips to New Zealand, I have to admit to being something of a dolphin swim junkie, having tried it with almost every operator who offers this magical experience on both islands. I have swam with dolphins in the impossibly clear and comfortingly warm waters of the North Island's Northland and I have emerged from the hypothermia inducing chilliness of the extreme south of the South Island, blue with cold but blissfully happy. I have lounged in sheltered, pond like ocean conditions and I have experienced the stomach churning roller coaster rides of the huge peaks and troughs of open ocean.
Each company has their merits; each offers slightly different and sometimes startlingly different experiences (not such magical memories arise here of being dragged behind a boat, coughing and spluttering and half-drowned – not a dolphin in sight). However, for me, there is one experience which shines above all the rest and doesn't just come out tops as my best New Zealand experience but also earns number one place as the best moment of my life.
Because New Zealand waters are so rich in marine life there is the opportunity of swimming with several different species of dolphin (and I have!) but there is something mega special here too. The smallest and rarest marine dolphin species found on the entire planet chooses to live here and only here, in the coastal waters of New Zealand – the tiny, strikingly marked, Hector's dolphin. The new-born babies are the size of a rugby ball.
And so to the historically French settlement of Akaroa on the South Island where from the wharf, the award winning Black Cat Cruises offers daily boat trips and cruises to see and swim with the Hector's dolphins, living both inside the sheltered bay (part of a long extinct volcanic crater) and the open ocean waters outside the harbour mouth.
After being kitted out with thick wetsuits, snorkels and masks we headed out, with everyone keeping a sharp lookout for the rounded 'mickey mouse ear' dorsal fin of the dolphins. Nothing was spotted inside the harbour so we passed into open ocean.
I had swam with this rather wonderful company several times before with varied degrees of success and had my 'I've swam with the dolphins' certificates to prove it. The dolphins are wild and so there are no guarantees (although partial refunds or the chance of taking another free trip are offered). Sometimes the dolphins choose to hang around, sometimes they don't. What would today bring?
As each of our small group of six plunged into the waters there were varying levels of suppressed screams and gasps as the icy waters enveloped us. I'm a total wimp with the cold usually but, so strong was my urge to be here, I would have suffered much worse gladly. A couple of dolphins came to check us out almost immediately and they were soon joined by another and then another......until we were surrounded by them – swimming under us, between us and around us. This was the most dolphins I had ever been in the presence of before and today it was obvious they wanted to play.....lots!
I always sing through my snorkel to the dolphins (although admittedly here it is a little more challenging with wildly chattering teeth) because it seems to fascinate them. Every single person on the swim that day was blessed with an up-close-and-personal experience with the dolphins. I would imagine the sounds of our laughter could be heard all the way back at the wharf. The dolphins stayed with us the whole of the hour allotted which is rare and I was so enchanted, spellbound and mesmerised by the whole experience that it was only the fact that I had lost complete feeling in my extremities which alerted me to the length of time we had been in the water.
My partner and I were the last to climb (reluctantly) aboard the boat and the dolphins were just as reluctant for their strange playmates to leave – they followed the boat back for a while as if to say 'aw....you're not going are you?'
There are times in life when words are just not enough. I find it impossible to put down on paper how I felt during and after that experience – honoured, emotional, proud, blessed....... and a thousand other things which can't be conveyed. It doesn't matter - swimming with those dolphins remains as 'THE' most magical and treasured memory of my life. Thank you New Zealand.
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