Swimming with dolphins

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My New Zealand adventure has begun - and begun in style! I said a teary farewell to Emma this morning and caught a shuttle to the bus stop where my Stray bus picked me up (a tour bus that works along similar lines to the Oz Experience one I took up the east coast). I had joined a bus where lots of people have already been round the south island of NZ and will continue on to do the north island - I have to join a connecting bus tomorrow to do my loop. The people I have met today have been lovely, but the vast majority of them won't be the people who I'll be travelling with for any extended amount of time.

We drove about 2 and a half hours to a place called Kaikoura, which in Maori literally means 'a meal of fish'. As I got on the bus he announced that we were running a bit late but would still get there in time for the dolphin swimming... Considering the fact that I had done no planning for NZ (I didn't even realise where the first stop was!) and had simply hopped on the bus with a 'take me somewhere, take me anywhere' philosophy but no real idea as to the itinerary, this came as quite a shock. Not everyone on the bus put their name down for it, but I was feeling fairly happy-go-lucky and decided to give it a go. I've never seen a dolphin in the wild, and I've always been fascinated to do so - swimming just seemed the next step up (although I was petrified of the cold!)

When we arrived we immediately got swim- and wet-suited up and were shown a brief educational and safety video, which basically explained that because these dolphins are completely wild we must interact with them on their terms only, and cannot predict or guarantee their activity.

We hopped on the boat and went out to sea, and waited a bit for them to locate the dolphins. Once they had done so, they sat us all on the back of the boat, with the swell lapping our legs. It was FREEZING! I wasn't sure I could actually make myself jump in, when all of a sudden I saw a dolphin leap out of a wave really close to the boat. I yelled and pointed and everyone looked, and soon there were dolphins jumping out everywhere. I had expected one or two, but this was a whole pod of 200 or so dolphins, and it was incredible. When the horn sounded I didn't even think about the cold I just dived in and within seconds I was in amongst the dolphins, with them cavorting all around you. What really surprised me was how close they come - so close you would have no trouble reaching out to touch them (although of course you are instructed not to do this). They're so inquisitive, and playful - and what makes it 100% times better doing it in the wild is that you know they are coming up to you because they WANT to play with you, not because they have been forced.

My favourite dolphin played with me for a full few minutes before moving on. You're told that they love to swim circles round you and each other, and that you can attract their attention by making noises and maintaining eye contact with them, so I swam myself dizzy playing with this dolphin who must have thought this funny girl making very stupid noises in her excitement was a great laugh!

Seeing them leap out of the water was another amazing sight - these were dusky dolphins, renowned for being the most acrobatic of their species, and boy do they love to show it off. Bellyflops seemed to be the most common form of leap, although I'm pretty sure I even saw one turn a complete somersault. Just fantastic!

By the 3rd time we leapt in the water however, I was beginning to fear the onset of hypothermia - breathing was becoming an issue and my limbs were no longer functioning properly, so I knew however much I wanted to stay in and play some more I needed to get warm. Only once we got out did they tell us that the water temperature was 14 degrees - but they had hot water hoses and cups of hot chocolate waiting for us on the boat.

I have gone from never having seen a dolphin in the wild, to having swum with a whole pod of them, and it was one of the best experiences of my travels. I am so glad I did it!
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