From my blog www.whereiscatnow.com:
If I had to sum up the dolphin swim in three words they would be UH. MAY. ZING. See what I did there? I know, I know. So clever.
The dolphin swim was the one expensive activity I really wanted to do while in Kaikoura. Actually, it was one of the things that fueled my desire to live in Kaikoura in the first place. I chose the sunrise tour because the dolphins are typically more playful and active in the early morning. Plus, I’d been getting up for sunrises in the weeks prior so there was no point in stopping.
Check-in for wetsuiting and safety brief was at 5:30 am. It was particularly eerie pedaling across town at such an early hour. It was silent and pitch black, except for the occasional street lamp, and looked like an opening scene for a scary movie. Just as I began having visions of the entire population vanishing while I slept, I cycled past a group of people walking in the direction I was heading. I was still too tired to form sentences so I just said “dolphin swim?” as I passed. They replied “dolphin swim” and we all laughed as I rode on.
The safety information is quite simple. Numero uno, don’t try to touch the dolphins, they don’t like it. They do, however, like it when you make noises. Swimmers are encouraged to make asses out of themselves by making loud stupid noises through their snorkels. The rule of thumb is that we are there to entertain the dolphins, not the other way around. If you get a cramp, don’t flail about like a spaz because the wetsuits are buoyant. You absolutely can not sink. And if your swim style resembles what a fish looks like out of water, you may have to give the occasional thumbs up to reassure the crew of your wellbeing.
Because these are wild dolphins and we were the first boat of the day, they warned that sometimes it can take up to forty-five minutes to locate them. That being said, my excellent travel juju must have tagged along for the ride because we spotted dolphins trailing behind us within a couple of minutes. We could see a few different pods in various directions so we cruised around to see what their behavior was like and if they’d converge. A few minutes later we got the go-ahead and everyone scooted excitedly off the boat.
Seconds after plunging into the frigid waters of the south pacific, I had dolphins coming from all sides and angles. They are so fast and graceful. They criss cross under you, over you and around you. It’s like you’re a funny little obstacle in the midst of their day and they entertain themselves by swarming and dancing around you. They come so close that you really could probably touch one if you reached out at just the right moment. They love it when you dive straight down, or swim in circles with them. I didn’t attempt to dive down because I haven’t mastered the whole “hold your breath then blow the water out of your snorkel when you return to the surface” technique. And I wasn’t about to ruin my dolphin swimming experience by choking on salt water.
I did do the circles, though, and it’s true! I would wait until one made eye contact with me or sometimes just start swimming to one side as fast as I could, which would usually grab their attention. The interested party would let me feel like I was keeping pace for a few seconds before they muttered “silly human” to their dolphin friends and zipped around me so fast I would get dizzy trying to keep up. Once discombobulated, I’d swim lazily while they danced around me until I was ready to go in circles again. Eventually, they’d get bored and leave us behind so we’d get back on the boat and do it all over again.
I’m fairly certain one almost landed on me. Dusky dolphins are known for being acrobatic showoffs. They do all kinds of belly flops, twists, dives and nose over tail backflips. At one point, while I had my head down watching a bazillion of these creatures criss cross in front of me, I felt a huge splash on my back. Before you say, “Really? You swam in the ocean and felt a splash. No way!” Hear me out. The force and amount of what I felt could only be generated by a cannonball-esque maneuver executed in exceptionally close proximity. I looked up to see if it happened again, but of course the culprit had zoomed off with the others. I just laughed, looked around at the hundreds of fins cutting through the water and kept on snorkeling.
The only part of our bodies not protected by wetsuit or snorkeling gear was our hands. After the third swim, I started to develop claw hands. They were so cold I couldn’t move them properly. Thankfully, shortly after rigor mortis set in, they told us our swimming time was over. I was already working my way towards the boat so I was more than happy to hop back in. Especially since “hot showers” were waiting our arrival. Hot showers meant a hose with hot water that we inserted into the top of our wetsuit to warm us up. It felt like you were pissing yourself, more or less. Not that I actually know what that feels like from experience, but I think I can safely assume that warm water running down my leg is exactly what pissing myself would feel like. And I’m not complaining because it did, in fact, warm me up.
The benefits of the hot shower were short lived as we had to change out of the wetsuits immediately after. I find it really funny that with all the information that is covered about the tour, they neglect to mention the fact you have to take off the only barrier between you and the frosty air while you’re standing outside and soaking wet. I’m sure it’s not bad during the summer tours but man it SUCKED on mine. The sun had barely been up and I don’t even want to know what the temperature was. I was gonna google it later that day and make a note but I forgot. Probably still could but who cares. Just trust me, it was fucking cold. Keep in mind it’s late autumn for us right now. My friends in the northern hemisphere can conjure a crisp late November morning. Anyways, once I managed to peel the wetsuit off (there was STEAM COMING OFF MY BODY), the real challenge was changing out of my bathers and into dry clothes with claw hands and full body shivers. My fingers were so rigid that they wouldn’t do what my brain was telling them to. They gave it the good old college try, but it just wasn’t working. I was fumbling with my clothes like a 13 year old boy with his first bra clasp.
All that being said, I’d like to clairify that I’m not actually whinging. Just exercising my descriptive skills and painting the picture for you. It was a very minute price to pay for the once in a lifetime experience.
Once we we completed the changing and dressing Olympics, we got to relax on the deck with hot chocolate and ginger cookies while watching aerial stunts performed by our swimming buddies. It really completes the whole experience. Swimming with them is obviously the most extraordinary part of the whole thing. But to see how many are actually out there and what they’re really capable of moments after they just humored you with a few easy circle swims, adds a new level of appreciation to the entire thing.
There was an article someone sent to me and I posted on Facebook about a month ago that was about what a life of travel does to you. In the article, the writer goes into detail about the sustenance for hardcore travelers being “those perfectly surreal moments that when you see them in a movie or hear others reminisce about them seem fake”. “But when it’s you experience them you can’t help but grin to yourself and feel a certain gleeful shiver work its way through you”. I’m very lucky to have many of those moments in my life. Some while traveling, others while catching up with hometown friends around a bonfire or when an insanely awesome group of girls are reunited for a wedding. Yep, that was a nonchalant shout out to my peeps.
I was also lucky to have one of those moments during the dolphin swim. I was in the water and my swimming mates had begun to desert me, probably due to my lack of water acrobatics and funny noises. So I decided to poke my head up for a different perspective.
The sun had finally made its way up and over the peninsula (we were on the opposite side of where the sun comes up) but there were still some pretty thick clouds. Just as I surfaced, the clouds parted just enough to let a few sun rays beam down on the water. There I floated, watching hundreds, possibly thousands of dolphins breaking the surface of the waves one way or another, under the golden glow of sporadic sun beams. Everyone else had their heads down in the water. As I started to laugh and look around me in disbelief, I realized that right then, at that exact moment in time, I was the only person in the world doing what I was doing. Then I laughed some more.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was my Dolphin Encounter.
Here is the link to the travel article. I hope if someone comes across my writing and like it, they credit me for it too!