New Zealand has no shortage of amazing wildlife. You can go on birdwatching expeditions, visit penguin colonies and take a whale watching cruise – but chances to get in the water with a completely wild animal are rare. So of course I jumped on it!
The town of Picton is best known as one end of the inter-island ferry route. It’s also the gateway to the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound, home to great hiking, kayaking and nature reserves full of seabirds and marine life. Most interesting to me: the three species of dolphin that call this area home, and I was going to find them!
As our boat cruised through the sound in search of dolphins to play with we passed so many adorable blue penguins that our Captain proclaimed it was the most he’d ever seen in one day. They float on tiny white bellies, generally being adorable and completely ignoring the dozen tourists squeeing just a few meters away.
But we weren’t here for penguins! Locating a pod of dolphins was the only thing on our agenda this morning. Unlike other places in the world, the dolphins here aren’t lured in with food to interact with the tourists. Their behavior isn’t modified at all, which makes the fact that they end up swimming with people 80% of the time pretty amazing!
Finally we found a huge pod of Bottlenose dolphins traveling fast out to sea. Our boat sped a few hundred meters in front of them so we could jump right in their path.
To attract them we were told to sing through our snorkels. (“Lady Gaga is best” advised the owner.) A dozen people singing their hearts out through snorkel gear is a pretty hilarious sight, but I’ll be damned if the singing didn’t at least attract their attention!
These guys were obviously busy chasing some fish, so they weren’t about to stop for a chat, but we could hear their whistles and clicks as they headed right for us, responding to our singing. All of a sudden they were right next to us, whizzing past at an incredible speed. And they are HUGE!
At one point I looked up, saw the pod bearing down on me and for just one second I wanted to back away. They’re so fast and enormous (6-8 feet!) that it’s a bit alarming to see them flying directly at your face. But then they glide by with such grace you can’t help but want to get closer.
Each time they passed us we’d get back in the boat and speed ahead to jump in one more time. The local conservation society allows the tour company (the only one in the region with a permit to swim with dolphins) four swims – four chances to get a dolphin’s attention.
As we sped after the huge pod we moved closer and closer to open ocean – actually within sight of the North Island! On the final swim we were barely able to keep up with them as they broke apart into small groups (probably chasing fish) but I was lucky enough to see a mom and a baby swim right underneath me! I climbed back on the boat exhilarated, not even noticing how the cold water had permeated my wetsuit.
On the way back we saw even more penguins, seabirds and an entertaining fur seal who, according to our crew, thinks he’s a dolphin. We warmed up with hot chocolate and sunshine as the stunning scenery passed us by.
Even though we didn’t have a particularly interactive swim, the experience can’t help but leave you full of excitement!
There are plenty of places to view dolphins in New Zealand, but if you happen to be passing through Picton I wouldn’t pass up the chance to swim with them. In addition to the three species of dolphin, there are Orcas, penguins, fur seals and tons of other wildlife that can be seen pretty regularly. It’s expensive like everything else in New Zealand, but so worth the cost.