A Close Encounter

Helena Wiseman, from Go Travel New Zealand, writes of her experience of meeting Kaikoura's magical dusky dolphins.

A Close Encounter

by Helena Wiseman

Kaikoura is known as the place “where the mountains meet the sea”, a breathtakingly beautiful place with a mountainous backdrop set back from a rugged coastline where the Pacific Ocean meets the shore.
I found there is much more to this place than stunning scenery and it is definitely worth a closer look.  It has quite a quaint appearance with the look of a coastal village more so than a thriving tourist destination, but it is this casual vibe that gives Kaikoura an appeal all of its own.

Without doubt the diverse array of marine life I had read about before my visit was the most alluring fact which influenced my decision to come and see for myself.  As soon as I arrived after checking into my accommodation, I decided to take a walk to get a taste of the outdoors. There is no shortage of scenic walks and each track or trail provides its own unique view of coast or mountains, much like flicking through a magnificent pictorial book ..  

I set off to walk to the seal colony which is quite an easy walk along the beachfront to the end of the road.  I ambled along past the wharf and a historic old pub, the Pier Hotel. The Pier Hotel would have to have the most superb views when enjoying a cold beer, than anywhere in Kaikoura. Looking across the bay to the mountains is breath-taking and I made a mental note to stop in on my way back from the seal colony. 

Further around I passed the Seafood Barbecue, an open air eating place which has a focus on seafood cooked to order. It is incredibly popular with visitors and locals and has a rustic charm all of its own.  Continuing on to the end of the road, I came to the seal colony, a beautiful place with rugged seams of rock, and of course so many New Zealand fur seals, I literally lost count. From this point you can commence the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway which winds up and along the edge of the peninsula and ends at South Bay on the southern side of the peninsula. Other walking tracks connect from the southern side back to the northern side of the peninsula making it easy to get back to where you started from.

I chose to amble back to the Pier and relax with a nice beverage while taking in the view.  I was also keen to finalise my plans for the next day – an encounter with some of the local wildlife! It is hard to choose from the activities on offer as they all sound exhilarating and unique and I had a desire to participate on every single opportunity!   I could choose swimming with the dusky dolphins, whale watching by boat or by air, and snorkelling with seals.

It was a big decision but after deliberating, I chose to swim with the dolphins as I have always dreamt of seeing dolphins in their natural ocean habitat. I was not to be disappointed.  I was given my wetsuit and snorkelling equipment to try on and to make sure that it fitted well. Then on to the  safety briefing which shows  what to expect on the tour and more importantly, how to respect the dolphins when you are in the water with them; and I was ready to go.  I was one of a group of only 16 swimmers and I learned that this is the maximum number of swimmers on each tour. Other passengers can join the tour to watch the dolphins if they are not keen to get their feet wet!

It was only a short boat ride before a pod of dusky dolphins was located along the coast and the crew on board advised us to get ready to enter the water. The sheer excitement mixed with a dash of nerves was almost overwhelming as I looked out and saw the dolphins just to the rear of the boat. I had to remember to breathe normally as I slipped into the water and paddled out in the direction of the dolphins. Before I knew it I was surrounded by streamlined shapes of the graceful dusky dolphins. I had to adjust to being the water and it took me a few seconds to become acclimatised to the wetsuit and the water temperature. Then I used my fins to circle around trying to be as graceful as I could, quite a challenge in a buoyant wetsuit I can assure you! I squeaked and squealed with delight through my snorkel and used all my energy to try and keep up with the speed of the duskies which seemed sort of vaguely interested in my antics. The dolphins circled me then spiralled down effortlessly beneath me rising up to the surface again to breathe. Then they returned as I continued to snorkel around and up and down trying to hold their attention.

It was an experience of exhilaration and pure adrenalin rolled into one. I returned to the boat to re-charge and adjust my gear as my mask had become a little loose. The crew on board were marvellous, eager to assist and so enthusiastic and encouraging. At the end of the swim time, we were given an opportunity to capture some photos and videos of the dolphins while listening to a commentary about them and why Kaikoura and of course the dusky dolphins so special.  I had hired a GoPro camera for the tour and had great fun filming the dolphins when I swam with them. Back at the Encounter Kaikoura base, the footage was copied to a USB and I had memories of my incredible experience ready to take home with me.

Reflecting on the Kaikoura experience, I would have to say it was one of the highlights of my adventures so far.  I found the range of accommodation available and the number of eateries on offer was surprising for a small town.  There is no shortage of choice.  I especially enjoyed fish and chips on the beach.  The seafood is fresh and delicious and admiring the coastal landscape while I munched was a perfect end to a superb day.  I will be back in the not too distant future to experience more of this unique gem of a marine paradise -Kaikoura.