DUSKY DOLPHIN DELIGHTS
Having paid our money we were led through to a room out back, lined with racks of wetsuits, boxes of snorkel and masks, with fins lining the wall and puddles of water on the floor. A young man with a goatee beard and wild hair looked at me as if weighing up how many mouths I might feed at a forthcoming banquet, and selected one of the hanging wetsuits. In the gents changing room next door I stripped down to my underpants and climbed into the suit. It hugged me so closely it felt like a second skin and my voice raised an octave: actually quite a pleasant feeling, not of fetish but of security. My valuables and fleece packed into my daypack I went outside to join the other adventurers. We were handed some gloves and booties of thick neoprene similar to the wetsuit, a snorkel and mask and a pair of fins.
Carrying our submarine apparel, we made our way across the road to the bus. Here our young guide explained the days itinerary - what to expect; the do’s and don’ts and safety check - together with a brief biology of the dolphins, and some hints on how to attract their attention to maximise our experience making it all the more memorable.
Ten minutes later at Kaikoura’s South Harbour in New Zealand, we swapped our four wheels for a deck and outboard. In all there were ten swimmers and two spectators together with our guide and “driver”.
The boat sped out into the open ocean heading for the spot where a small group of dolphins had been seen earlier that day. Hutton Shearwaters and Wandering Albatross bobbed on the waters surface, reluctantly taking to the air on huge, outstretched wings as we approached. My expectations were of a beautiful sunny day, the light glistening off the water droplets as the leaping dolphins fell to melt into the flat turquoise expanse. The silky liquid would be broken only by their sleek, aerodynamic forms as they leapt out of the water and in a perfect arc disappeared back into their Jacques Cousteau world. Today was nothing like that. There was quite a gusty wind blowing creating a small swell and the sun remained obscured by clouds. A few people began to turn green as we moved from the shelter of the harbour. By the end of the trip three people had vomited.
We sat patiently until someone pointed excitedly out of the window and between swells we saw dark shapes just breaking the surface. As we neared more came into view and we congregated at the back of the boat. We lowered our masks into place and securely fitted snorkels into mouths. The gates were opened, the hooter blown and we all hurried into the water, struggling to manoeuvre over the one step in uncontrollable flippers. My anticipation of warm, almost tropical water was soon shattered as the reality of the Pacific Ocean permeated my wetsuit with the subtlety of an ice cube down my pants. In order to catch their attention I shouted the theme tune to match of the day through my snorkel and searched vainly for an aquatic audience.
The hooter sounded again signalling that we should all get back on board the boat. Apparently we had taken too long in entering the water and if we were to see dolphins we would have to brush up on our act! We sped off to a new area and another pod of dolphins. The boat slowed down, giving us a chance to watch their amazing acrobatics. Back flips, spins; two, three, four leaping out of the water simultaneously, seemingly without a care in the world. The engine cut and with concerted effort we quickly slid into the freezing depths.
Floating on the surface, moving my limbs mainly for warmth, I changed tunes, hoping to have more success with the theme from the Muppets. In-between breaths I can hear my neighbours shouting their own songs. Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash as something zips past. I turn to look but it’s gone. Then another, but this time it’s a lot nearer and I’m prepared. I watch, as the dark shape swims underneath me no more than ten feet away. I can see its eyes that seem to be looking into mine; I can also see its dull, white underside and the line of its mouth. Another two swim towards me and pass within two feet. My arm darts out to the side and I stroke its tail as it swims by. That’s it: I’ve touched a dolphin! Moments later five swim underneath me, turning in unison before fading into the blue-green depths. I surface to get my bearings in time to see the last few swimmers climbing back on board and I hurry towards the boat to join them. Everyone is excited and grinning, keen to share their underwater experiences.
I had two more dives, returning to the boat with a huge grin after each one. The brave ones went back for a fourth dive but by this time I was starting to feel the cold. While they dived I stood on deck with a shower nozzle pushed inside my wetsuit spraying warm water to expel the cold. Meanwhile the guide came around offering hot chocolate and cookies to warm the insides.
On the way back there was one last, unexpected treat, the sighting of a blue shark only 30 feet off the side of the boat. We managed to get some good views before the dolphins mobbed it, driving it away
The weather could have been better, the sea calmer, clearer and warmer, especially warmer. But to have been privileged to experience the Dolphin’s world first hand, to see them so close in their natural habitat without any hostility, is a truly remarkable experience.