From Waipoua, I drove across the northern peninsula to the town of Piahia in the Bay of Islands. Before traveling to New Zealand, I found that the Bay of Islands was famous for dolphin watching (occasionally whales, but those are typically off the south island). I looked around at boat tours half-heartedly because I’ve lived in Florida after all, where dolphins regularly show up around boats. And even around the Puget Sound we see mostly seals, but sometimes dolphin and orca fins as well from private craft or even from the passenger ferries. I felt jaded about it, only passingly interested. Until I read about the swimming.
One thing I do want to point out in retrospect. I should not have felt jaded about the animals or seeing them. I should have, like the giant trees, been excited to see them in the wild no matter what. This gratitude glitch is fixed now and I hope it never breaks again.
I’ve wanted to swim with dolphins since the very first time I went into a marine park and saw the trainers interacting with them. If we hadn’t left Florida, I may have pursued a career as a marine biologist and/or dolphin trainer. Alas, my years in Tennessee squished that childhood dream like a bug on an 18-wheeler. Since then, I have learned the damage that dolphins suffer in captivity and no longer support marine parks with captive large mammals, which might be all of them. I do still go to zoos and aquariums. There are good reasons to have those things, not the least is that it engages children early and makes people interested in and concerned about animals in the wild and wilderness conservation. However, I couldn’t bring myself to pay a marine park for the privilege of swimming with captive dolphins whose lives are unfairly shortened by that captivity. Thus, when I found this option, this swimming with wild dolphins in the ocean option, I was hooked.
Whether the Weather
I knew that the wintertime waters would be cold, but also that being so far in the north (everything is backwards and upside-down, remember) the weather wouldn’t be too bad and that a wet-suit would protect swimmers from the water temperatures well enough. In order to protect the dolphins, there are only 3 companies licensed at any given time to do dolphin encounters in the Bay of Islands. The first company I emailed turned out to be closed entirely for the winter. The second was open, but running limited trips and offering no swimming opportunities in the winter. With my fingers and toes crossed, I tried to the third and final company, finding that, yes, they did winter swimming, but that it was dependent on so many variables including the weather and the dolphins themselves that it wasn’t really very likely. They said I should wait until a few days before I wanted to go to make a reservation in order to get the best weather possible.
This is not as easy as it sounds. I had booked a room in a different location nearly every night for my trip. I wanted to be able to wake up near my day’s activities, enjoy them, then in the evenings when the sunlight went away and the temperatures dropped drive to my next destination. I’d booked a room in Piahia for Monday night, with the hopes of boating on Tuesday. I watched the weather like a hawk and emailed back and forth trying to determine the ideal conditions. On Sunday, the weather showed Monday to be rainy, but Tuesday and Wednesday seemed to be nearly identically perfect. I’d booked rooms in the north peninsula for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night, each about an hour from the other because the peninsula isn’t that wide. So I had a little latitude if I was willing to do the extra driving, to rearrange my day activities Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. However, Wednesday night, I had a prepaid cabin at Hot Water Beach that I couldn’t move or cancel and that was a 4.5 hr drive back through Auckland and up the Coromandel Peninsula.
When I arrived in Piahia Monday evening and checked the weather again, it looked great. The folks on the other end of the email chain were still being cagey, telling me that recent outings had only been able to put people in the water 1 of 10 trips. I tried several times to let them know I understood that they couldn’t guarantee anything, because even in perfect weather the dolphins may have young or be feeding, both of which prohibit the entrance of swimmers into their waters. I just wanted them to give me a best case on weather alone between Tuesday and Wednesday…. email silence. I tried calling from the hostel, but the office had closed early and the answering service girls didn’t know about the weather at all.
Finally, I just decided to go. I was here, the weather looked nice. I couldn’t reach anyone in the know, but there was plenty of space left on the Tuesday morning boat. I I decided to just get up early and walk down to the wharf to book my spot on the spot. I No matter what, I would enjoy the ride. If the universe said no swimming, I would accept that, but if it allowed swimming conditions, I would not be the one to stand in the way.
I checked out of my hostel by 7:30 and walked over to the booking office of Fuller’s Great Sights where I chatted with a lovely young lady about my hopes and desires for the day. She assured me that the weather looked great for swimming. She told me some people got nervous about swimming in open water, but that she could tell from my enthusiasm it would not be a problem for me. She even gave me a discount on my ticket. I had enough time for a quick breakfast at the cafe next door (egg and bacon sandwiches should be universal) before we loaded onto the boat.
As an aside, the boats that are approved by the Department of Environment for dolphin encounters in NZ have special engines that do not disturb the dolphins. This means they have no fear of swimming right up to the boat and under it, giving passengers a first class view of the dolphins in the stunning blue waters of the Bay of Islands. My point is, even if the swimming isn’t your thing, this boat ride is a good trip.
I sat up on the very top and began (as I do) chatting with another lone traveler until the skipper asked all those interested in swimming to come to the cabin below for a safety talk. If/when they sighted dolphins, we would have very little time to get changed and jump in, so they wanted to give us the talk as early as possible. We filled out our health and indemnity forms and then listened to the safety regulations about not touching the dolphins, about the possibility of cold shock and hyperventilation in the water, and about how to wear a snorkel. Just as she was finishing up, the skipper announced a dolphin sighting. Our safety class all but disintegrated as everyone rushed to the doors and windows to see. Only threat of not being allowed in the water brought them back.
After the lecture was concluded, we did have a chance to go up on deck to see the dolphins in the water. As it turns out, the crew have to watch a pod for a while to determine their behavior before people can be allowed to join in. Juvenile dolphins are very curious and will wander off from their mothers in order to investigate the strange new creature in the water (eg, humans). Then the mothers will separate from the pod to keep their kids in sight and soon the two of them are cut off from the protection of the group. Bay of Islands is sheltered but not totally free of predators, including Orca, who would find a separated mother and baby quite ideal lunching. As such, Department of Conservation don’t want us in the water with the babies, not, as one might think, because it scares them, but instead because they are SO curious, they will put themselves in danger to be near us.
The other behavior that we cannot interrupt is feeding. Dolphins actually make separate time for feeding and for playing. Feeding is serious work, and usually group behavior. They work together to confuse and herd a shoal of fish so everyone can eat when the fish are grouped tightly near the surface. It saves energy from trying to catch one fish at a time and dolphins need a lot of energy. So if they are feeding, humans need to stay out of the way or we can loose them their lunch.
The dive instructor also told us that the dolphins could be somewhat cheeky and like to play pranks on swimmers. They had learned to recognize the boats and would come up to us just until everyone was in the water, and then swim away… until everyone was back in the boat and then come back again. It was their idea of a game, she told us, so don’t be surprised if they run off as soon as you get in.
As we were watching the dolphins swim around, the skipper announced they were feeding and we wouldn’t be able to go in the water after all. So I settled in to take some pictures and watch them play. I was amazed at how close to the boat they came. They swam around us, not just little fins in the distance, but just below the surface of the water alongside the rail. The skipper was identifying those of the pod she could by their dorsal fin shapes, as each dolphin’s fin is as unique as a fingerprint, and I’d only taken a few photos when suddenly the call came to change into our diving gear now, now, now.
I don’t have an underwater camera yet, and the crew were busy with saftey, so I don’t have any pictures of myself in the water. If
We rushed inside and started shedding layers of winter garb, scarves and jackets left pell-mell on the unused indoor seating. I ran to the toilet to throw on my swimsuit then back into the cabin for a wet-suit. They were only ¾ suits, stopping at knees and elbows, but that was likely for the best because they were faster to get on. Soon I was kitted out with a mask and flippers and people were lining up to jump into the water.
The boat had a large net on one side that we were meant to jump into and wait in. The boat pulled away from the dolphins while we entered so our splashing wouldn’t disturb them too much, then slowly went back toward them with us in the netting. The water was icy cold and shocking. Although it wasn’t actually freezing, 13 C feels intensely cold if you’re immersed in it. When I first tired my snorkel, it leaked and I was worried I’d miss my chance. People were already getting out of the net and into the open water while I was trying to convince the dive master to give me a new headset. She thought the water was coming in from the top, that I had it tilted back, but I’ve done snorkeling before and know what it feels like to have water come in at the top, this water felt like it was coming through a breach in the mouthpiece. Finally, I got a new mask and snorkel, and sure enough, no extra water.
By this time, I’d lost the group. I headed out into the water, following the pointing arms of the people in the boat who could see the dolphins nearby. At first I couldn’t catch my breath. This had made sense with the leaky snorkel, but now with the functional one, I worried for a moment I might be suffering the cold-shock induced hyperventilation she warned us about. I quickly tried to both get warmer by moving about and to get control of my breathing by taking even measured breaths. Yay for yoga. The instructor also told us that dolphins like to play. That holding still in the water is boring, so if we wanted their attention we had to spin about and do tricks and make noise. This sounds tricky while you’re on land, but it turns out that being in icy water and having lost not only all my people but also all my dolphins, meant I spun around like a top looking for anything there was to see while trying to stay warm.
The water, which had seemed so clear from aboard the boat, was cloudy once I was in it. The boat uses water jet engines and even on low they were stirring things up a little. Then there were the 9 people in the area trying their best to move around interestingly to attract dolphins, plus the dolphins themselves. When I popped my head up to orient myself, I found the group nearby and saw that the people in the boat were quite excited which told me the dolphins must be near. I put my head under again and I could hear them. Underwater is normally a very silent experience. If you are snorkeling or scubaing you hear only your breath; f you are holding your breath you hear nothing. It has always been one of the more peaceful things about swimming to me. Even on a crowded beach, I could just put my ears under and be in peace and quiet. But now, I could hear the dolphins.
You know the sound. Not the horrible Flipper sound of bad animal TV and even worse dolphin toys that sounds like some kind of deranged laughter. That is a sound we taught them to make in air. I mean the high pitched swoons and tiny popping clicks that they use with each other underwater. You’ve heard recordings, I’m sure. I know I have. That’s how I knew what I was hearing. But in the water, cloudy as it was and me with no echolocation in my skull, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was not muffled the way human voices and other sounds become under water are, but sharp and clear as any sound vibrating in air. A sound meant to be heard underwater. I almost stopped moving just so I could feel it better.
Then, out of the murk in front of me came a dolphin, huge and dark grey. The largest bottle-noses in the world live here and no one knows quite why they grow so large around NZ, but they do. When they swim past you at arms length, you understand just how truly large they are. The giant male in our group was about 4m in length (that’s 13 feet for the imperialists), the others not less than 3m. I swirled to look as he passed. I had no hope of keeping up the pace but wanted to look as long as I could, but then another passed by, and one below me. They didn’t come all at once, they almost seemed to be taking turns, and though I knew I was not far from the rest of the human group, I could not see any other people underwater with the limited visibility. I continued to whirl and spin, not for attention, but to see where the dolphins had gone. Suddenly a swathe of bubbles came up from below and to my left that could have been nothing else but a dolphin playing with me. Dolphins use bubbles to confuse and herd fish when hunting, but it is not unusual for mammals to imitate hunting behavior in play. (cats and yarn, anyone?) Despite the fact that bubbles are a hunting tactic, it was beyond clear these animals were playing and not threatening. It felt particularly interactive, and made me giggle and hum back to them underwater. Another pair swam by, and finally once more the huge, darker one. Then the crew was calling us back.
Did That Just Happen?
This may have been the single most ridiculously exhilarating thing I’ve ever done, I’m not sure. I don’t know how to talk about it without sounding like I’m bragging, but when people ask me what’s my favorite thing I’ve done, I can’t answer anymore because I’ve just done too many amazing things and it’s like choosing a favorite child. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I wish everyone could have these experiences because I think if we all went around with a little more awe and gratitude the world would be a better place. Instead of a list from one favorite thing down, think of it like a series of tiers. The top tier is smallest, to be sure, but it has room for more than one thing, and it can grow if it needs too because it grows when you add stuff to it as do all the others. This experience definitely goes to the top tier where it will reside in good company with a few other peak memories of a lifetime.
I don’t have any pictures of myself in the water, but here’s a promo video from the tour company’s website to give you a visual of what I got to experience:
I am reasonably sure I was high on endorphins and adrenaline for the rest of the day. I could not stop grinning and I felt strangely warm once I was back on the ship. I was in no real hurry to get dry and dressed, and even once dressed, I felt fine leaving my scarf and coat on the chair. Meanwhile, the dolphins had swum away. They’d stuck around just long enough to play with us for a little while, then wandered off. Later, when I was talking to a crew member about them, she said that the dolphins in this pod included Ripper (an old grumpy male who usually hated people but liked showing off his male parts) and Flip. She said that they were not usually the friendliest of dolphins and often kept their distance from swimmers, but that for the last couple of weeks they’d been uncharacteristically interactive.
At that moment I had my first real clue that the gods of Aotearoa were putting on a show for me. I’m not kidding. One or two coincidences of timing and weather is luck, but this vacation has all the hallmarks of of “divine intervention” and this was the first sign that got through my thick skull. Keep watching.
Around the Bay
The dolphin encounter had been within the first 30 minutes of our 4 hour tour that day, so after I got dry and dressed we still had a lot of exploring to do around the bay. The Bay of Islands is famous because Captain Cook, the first European in NZ, decided it was a nice stopover on the way to Australia. For a while it was the most bustling metropolis in NZ, but ever since the capitol moved to Auckland, it’s become a sleepy little two town area that’s now famous for it’s beautiful seascapes and friendly dolphins.
As we rode out to “the Hole in the Rock”, we passed by dozens of tiny islands, some inhabited and some not. We were regaled with histories of piracy and assassination in the early days of European settlement, and of the farmers who later raised dairy cows around the islands which resulted in the need for a “cream run” boat to collect the milk and how that later became the first boat to run tourists around the bay as well and was the ancestor of the company boat we were currently on. The hole in the rock island has significance to the local Maori tribe and is still held in trust for them, although it is preserved as a wildlife refuge because it has no evidence of being exposed to external plant or animal life. We didn’t go on to the island because the boat tours don’t have an agreement with the Maori there, but we did sail out to take a look at the unique natural rock formation. When the weather permits, the boat will go through the hole, but the winds were too high so far out of the shelter of the Bay, and the skipper decided it wasn’t safe. Personally, I didn’t mind. If the weather had to pick only one thing to be cooperative about that day, I was in support of the swimming over sailing through a rock.
On the way back in, we spotted a tiny penguin. NZ has native penguins but I gather they are more common in the south. We also spotted a lone fur seal having a sun on a rock below a now remote controlled lighthouse. For the truly dedicated outdoorsperson, there is a cabin below the lighthouse that can be rented… if you’re willing to hike the 17km across the island to it. Finally we stopped at a larger island where we could disembark and walk around. There was a beautiful beach that I imagine would have been the most popular stop in the summer, letting the boaters bathe in the clear blue waters of the nearly undeveloped island coast. But since it was a little brisk for a second swim, I headed inland toward the viewing point instead.
The island boasted a flock of sheep and a few buildings, although we were told no one lived there full time. The hill was steep and we were pressed for time before the boat departed. Instead of my usual meander, I tried for a fast pace all the way to the top. It was a challenge, but the view was truly worth the effort. From the peak we could see all around the bay, the whole island we stood on, as well as others around us with the myriad shades of blue water, green land and yellow sand weaving a tapestry below the bright sunny sky.
Back to Russell
Staying as long as we dared, we scampered back down the hill just as the boat was sounding the 10 minute warning and we passed the only other passenger ship on our way out. During a lingering view of a close pair of islands, we spotted dolphins again. The same pod we had swum with earlier came back for another peek at the boat. The restrictions on swimming time meant we couldn’t go back in again, but this time I had more of a chance to watch them from the deck and snap a few more photos before they left us for the last time and we began our travel back in earnest. In opposition to some of our leisurely boating around the islands, we had a speedy return to the ports where we had two options for the afternoon: Piahia or Russell.
Although I boarded the boat in Piahia, I got off in Russell with a pass to take the ferry back when I was ready. Russell is the other sleepy little town here and I spent a nice couple hours chatting with a German tourist I’d met on the boat, enjoying a local lamb sandwich lunch, and walking around the town square to admire the local architecture and gardens. Despite the fact that it was still winter, there were so many beautiful flowers in bloom . It turns out that lilies grow wild in the north of NZ and this was the first time I’d ever seen a lily in the ground instead of a vase. I also found a banana tree that was part in bloom and part in fruit so I was able to see a banana flower for the first time as well. I certainly didn’t expect flower gazing to be a part of my winter tour of NZ, but it was a treat to see these beautiful blooms up close.
PSA: About the Bay of Islands Dolphins
During certain portions of our boat trip we traveled at max speed to cover distance when there was less to see. The waves were high and anyone on deck was likely to get drenched during the fast travel, so passengers came in to one of the two indoor cabins. On the way out to Hole in the Rock, I was drying off and changing from my swim. On the way back to Russell, however, I took the opportunity to sit down with the lady who knew most about the dolphins and ask her some more about who they were and what life was like for them here in the Bay of Islands.
I learned that dolphins don’t really have a “home” as such. If they did use the bay as a home, we would not be allowed to swim with them because that would be too disruptive. It’s only because the dolphins are also visitors to the bay that it is a safe space to interact with them. They like to have their young in the bay or places like it because the waters are sheltered and warmer. This is also where I learned about the problems of curious baby dolphins. She told me that even though the NZ government only approves three vessels at a time for dolphin encounters, every summer dozens if not hundreds of tourist vessels flood the bay and often approach the dolphins with engines running, or on high speed devices like jet skis that frighten and disorient the dolphins. The government approved vessels have special engines and never move fast near the animals. Additionally, summer visitors will often jump in the water with the dolphins with no regard for the animals safety, young, or feeding patterns which has been severely disruptive to their life and breeding. Both the number of dolphins in the bay and the birth rate of the dolphins have fallen dramatically in the last 20 years. The number of dolphins has dropped as much as 90% and the breeding rate has fallen by about 75%. This is not to say the dolphins themselves are dying out. They may be totally fine in another part of the ocean, but they aren’t using the Bay of Islands nearly as much as they used to, and the main contributor to this behavioral change has been human beings.
Don’t loose heart. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go see and swim with a dolphin here. I am saying you should do it responsibly. Make sure you go with a government licensed vessel and respect the dolphins breeding and feeding needs. If you do go out on a private vessel and happen to see them, make sure you slow down, don’t rush around them, and don’t chase them if they choose to swim away. Speed makes them uncomfortable, and they need to be free to get to open waters if they want. No matter how tempting it is, don’t jump in the water with them if you aren’t on one of the approved vessels. Their skippers are trained to know when it’s safe and healthy for the dolphins to have visitors. If you happen to be swimming or kayaking when dolphins approach, you don’t have to run away, but be respectful. Slow down, don’t chase them, don’t try to touch them. Swimming with wild dolphins is a magical experience, but if we chase it too hard, it will slip from our grasp. Dolphins will move away from disruptive humans and our chances to interact with them will dwindle to nothing. It took years of patience and planning to find a trip that met my standards to protect and not exploit the dolphins, but it was worth it. Please, if you love them, respect them and visit them in safety so that we can continue to do so for generations to come.
I thought about saving this story for last because so many people would assume that swimming with dolphins is just about the most amazing thing that could happen to a body during a vacation. In the end, I decided to keep it in order because the mounting sense of wonder, awe and appreciation that I felt over the course of 10 days is much more than any single experience can eclipse. I will treasure this experience forever, but it is not a jewel alone. I hope you’ll come back for more Tales from Aotearoa as we head for the waterfalls and the wilderness on the eastern side of the peninsula. Until then, please enjoy the full photo album on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!