Baptism by dolphin

Trip Start Nov 06, 2003
Trip End Jan 24, 2004

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Sunday, December 21, 2003

When Cook charted the waters below present day Christchurch, he christened the hilly land Banks Island. His mistake is understandable. The peninsula, named after Cook's famous biologist Sir Joseph Banks, is comprised of two extinct volcanoes. One can imagine that Cook, fighting contrary winds and forced (for fear of foundering) out of sight of land many times by storms, assumed the jutting piece of mountainous land bore no connection to the flat lands of the Canterbury Plain.

The sea has had its way with the huge craters, wearing down the sides to form natural harbours - much as it has at Hanauma Bay on Oahu, but on a much grander scale. The results are Lyttleton Harbour on the north side of the first volcano, and Akaroa Harbour to the south.

Early Sunday morning, we repeat our giant S drive of the previous day. The dramatic dawn skies promise rain and thunder as we drive the steep inside crater around the end of Lyttleton Harbour, sidestep the summit of Mt. Herbert into the flat tongue of land beside Lake Ellesmere (actually one of NZ's largest lagoons), then trace the southern volcano's outer edge, following the old train line to its terminus at Little River. From here, early settlers would have taken a stagecoach or bus for the last 30-minute drive up the volcano's lip, before braking down to the postcard villages of Duvachelle and Akaroa. When we descend, it is as if God himself shows us the way to the dolphins, light stabbing through the clouds to ignite the waters of the harbour.

Julie is coming for the boat ride but not the swim, so Emma and I gear up into damp wetsuits and squelch our way to the dock. Our boat is a far cry from the jet catamaran of the Bay of Islands, but then the Hector's dolphins in these waters are a lot smaller than their bottlenose cousins up north. The small dolphins reach only four feet in length, but endangered though they may be, they're plentiful here. It's not long before we see pods flitting about other dolphin boats.

The jade green swells coming down from the harbour mouth are affecting Julie's complexion, but before she's really sick we're in the shelter of the shore and jumping into the water. FREEZING water!! Even with a hood, the cold squeezes my head. Small dorsal fins cut the water around me and the crew are yelling "Over there, mate! Put your head under!"

Whatever the reverse of a fish out of water is, that's me for the next 30 minutes. I flop around, listening to the air suck in and out of the snorkel, trying to look interesting to the occasional dim shape that blurs past me. I've never been more aware of how slowly people move in water, flippers or no. I do get one decent 3-second view of a small dolphin that pivots near me before firing off into the gloom. I'm far more aware of the feeling of the deep ocean beneath me. And of my shriveling genitalia.

When we're finally back on deck, sipping hot chocolate, I have to admit that Julie has probably had more fun watching from the boat. There's something very comical about these foundering human shapes trying to interact with the bullet-movements of the dolphins: Sylvester versus Speedy Gonzales. The Hector's dolphins may be plentiful, but I'd have to say that we got our dolphin experiences reversed; these are the ones to watch from the comfort of a deck. The larger dolphins in the warmer waters of Bay of Islands are the swimming partners!
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