Swimming with dolphins – An experience I’ll never forget

Every once in a while, something happens that deeply affects you, and maybe even changes your perception of life and the world around you. For some of us that might be the birth of a child, a religious conversion, or just discovering a new place you really love! For me, it was swimming with dolphins…

About five years ago, I was taking a month-long holiday in New Zealand, somewhere I’d wanted to visit ever since I watched the Lord of the Rings films and fell madly in love with the landscape. My girlfriend and I hired a campervan and took off around both the North and South islands, with no particular itinerary, just exploring the scenic countryside and peaceful towns along the way.

We embarked on the short ferry ride from Wellington at the bottom of the North island to Picton, at the northern tip of the South, and during the voyage we wandered around the deck. After a few minutes, far off in the distance, I caught a glimpse of unusual shapes in the water. Soon, we realised that what we were seeing was a small pod of dolphins, playing in the sunshine. The ferry docked and we set off for our campsite, and my girlfriend began flicking through our battered and annotated guidebook. Within moments she discovered that not only was New Zealand one of the best places in the world to actually swim with dolphins, but that we were only a short drive from Kaikoura, which is where most trips depart from!

Naturally, we headed straight there, and within a couple of days we were booked on to a tour. Dolphin-swimming trips usually depart really early, so we were required to meet at the centre while it was still dark. With coffee and doughnuts, we settled down to learn about “the science bit” – it was fascinating to hear about the ecology of the wild dusky dolphins that inhabit these waters, and their behaviours. We were handed wetsuits, more coffee (much-needed), and then about 20 of us boarded a fast boat off the coast. Small groups are vital so as not to disturb the dolphins too much, and we were of course given plenty of direction on what and what not to do, should we encounter a pod.

After maybe half an hour, word came that there was a pod of dolphins just ahead of us. We circled them, slipped on our masks and snorkels, and went over the side into the cold, cold water.

All the great things you’ve heard about swimming with dolphins, believe. We were incredibly lucky, amazingly so – within seconds we were surrounded by around a hundred dolphins, adults and young. These beautiful creatures swam all around us, coming up so close as to be within touching distance, not that we were allowed to reach out to them. They would look deeply into our eyes, as if somehow trying to read our thoughts. Inquisitive, playful and charming, they were not in the least bothered by our presence, and we were in the water with them for almost an hour before they moved on.

We climbed back on the boat, watching the pod recede into the distance, their dorsal fins slipping out of the waves. Occasionally they would leap into the air, allowing us to take some fantastic photos framed by the still-low sun. Slowly heading back, we made a diversion after a tip from another tour operator that there were humpback whales in the area, but we got there in time only to see the flick of a tail as our quarry disappeared beneath the waves.

On arrival back at base, where yet more coffee and doughnuts awaited us, I felt like a changed person. The sensation of being among these beautiful, friendly and intelligent mammals had completely overwhelmed me. Rather embarrassingly, until that day, I’d had next to no interest in issues relating to the environment, or conservation, but from then on it became an area I was fascinated by. Two years later I took a Masters in Ecotourism, with a focus on New Zealand’s wildlife conservation efforts, and following that I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Costa Rican rainforest, where I swam with bottlenose and spinner dolphins in Drake’s Bay. The exact same, life-affirming experience.

If there is one experience I would recommend, to anyone, it is if you have the opportunity to swim with dolphins, do it. Obviously it’s of vital importance that you go with a responsible operator that seeks to minimise any impact on the marine life, but it’s not hard to identify who is trustworthy by checking their websites.

While I was in New Zealand I bungee jumped, I took a skydive, and a white-water rafting trip, and loved them all, but nothing gave me such a rush as swimming with dolphins, and that feeling has stayed with me ever since.

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