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The sky was a huge canopy of bright blue, the ocean sparkling as if strewn with crystals under the morning sun and our hearts were racing with excitement at the prospect of swimming with dolphins.
For some people this is a Bucket List item about to get the satisfied swish of a tick, for others standing on the Paihia Wharf dolphins are their passion and they’re old pros, knowing how to whisper (or sing) to these playful and sleek Bottlenose beauties and can’t get enough of jumping into the deep blue for an up close and personal encounter.
A Fullers GreatSights Dolphin Eco Experience on their purpose-built boat will get you as close as possible to the action. The Tutunui has open sides and holds a maximum of 35 passengers.
It’s small and intimate and those who prefer to stay dry will love taking photos of the dolphins gliding underneath, breaking the surface with their own “snorkels” and leaping and twisting out of the water as the pod of swimmers splash about among them.
Floppy (aka Jo Halliday) is the most experienced crew member on the Fullers GreatSights team. She knows many of these dolphins by name, having worked with them in these waters for 20 years, and can identify about 400 individually – including about 50 or 60 that have names.
Between her and the skipper, it doesn’t take long to find the first pod, learn what their current behaviour means – whether they’re on the move or hanging around for a chance to play with humans – then ready, set, go!
The success rate of finding dolphins on these trips is around 95% and if by the unlucky chance you don’t get to see them you get a voucher to return for free which is valid for life.
There are also times when swimming with them is not possible – if the sea is too lumpy or if the dolphins have calves with them, but most days it’s an experience to write home about for years to come.
In the Bay of Islands, it’s also not unusual to see Orca, seals, flying fish and feeding seabirds dive bombing for food as part of your trip.
Back on the Tutunui and excitement runs high as the passengers who are already in their swim suits don the provided wetsuits, grab a snorkel, mask and fins and get ready to step into the underworld habitat of the ocean’s most elegant creatures.
It’s as if the dolphins are waiting for their human friends to come and play. They swim over to get a better look then dive away underneath only to surface again in the distance, leaping out of the water and turning to come back for another look.
There are legal “visiting hours” too so these protected mammals don’t get exhausted – they take a lunch break between 11.30am and 1pm.
And if you are lucky enough to share a moment when a dolphin looks at you in the eye, there is no experience like it.
Fullers GreatSights operate daily half day dolphin swimming cruises in the Bay of Islands between September and April. For more info visit dolphincruises.co.nz