The Dolphins of Akaroa

The information was contained in a sidebar, and I missed it the first time I read through the itinerary. On a second reading it leaped out at me: on Day 15, the last afternoon of my tour of New Zealand, there would be an opportunity to swim with the rare Hector’s dolphins at the South Island’s Akaroa Harbor. Previous opportunities to swim with cetaceans, on other continents and in warmer waters, had somehow never panned out. This time, all I had to do was inform the tour guide and pay the modest additional cost. I was in.

The Hector’s dolphin is the only indigenous New Zealand dolphin, and so ranks with the kiwi and the fabled moa as a national faunal oddity. Measuring an average of only four feet, the dolphins have distinctive black and gray coloring, with a white underbelly. They are also the world’s rarest dolphins, numbering an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 individuals. In the North Island, the dolphins are critically endangered, and thought to number no more than 100. Akaroa Harbor, where we would have our encounter, is part of the South Island’s Banks Peninsula Sanctuary, a marine mammal conservation area established in 1988.

The dolphins captured my imagination and existed as a leitmotif in the back of my mind throughout the trip – “On Day 15 I swim with dolphins.” In the meantime, we dedicated ourselves to the pursuit of the serious fun for which New Zealand is world renown – traveling by four wheel drive vehicles to the summit of Mt. Tarawera, where we were then invited to descend through ankle-deep scree to the bottom of the caldera; jet-boating on the Dart River; taking a rainy day hike on the Routheburn trek, dressed head to toe in flowing black rain gear courtesy of our local supplier, and looking for all the world like so many ring wraiths in this most Tolkienesque of  landscapes.

The scree-strewn descent from Mount Tarawera

Day 15 began with a final trip through the New Zealand countryside, as we departed from Christchurch on the approximately 80 minute drive to the town of Akaroa. By now the landscape was comfortably familiar, and, I felt, one of the most successfully merchandised in the world – it seemed that there were very few parts of their unique environment that the Kiwis didn’t invite you to cruise or hike on, to jet boat or bungee-jump over, or to simply stop and admire over a cup of coffee at one of the cafes marking its countless lookout points and roadside attractions.

We arrived mid-morning at Akaroa Harbor, where the three of us signed up for the dolphin swim waved our companions off on the standard harbor cruise and attempted to fill in the hour preceding our noon departure. Among us was our guide, Michael, a droll and unfailingly affable native South Islander who was nonetheless embarking on his first dolphin adventure. I perused the small gift shop, where the plush black and gray dolphins on offer made a refreshing change from the ubiquitous backpack-wearing kiwis and bungee-jumping sheep. I waited on the wharf to observe the return of the previous dolphin excursion. The swimmers arrived on schedule – a group of Germans in full body wet suits who marched briskly to the changing rooms and hot showers. I noted with some trepidation that they were emerging barefoot from the 60-degree water, and expressed this concern to Michael. He gave it his customary polite attention, and theorized that surely the company would provide wee booties.

Akaroa Harbor

At 11:30 we were rounded up, matched as closely as possible with one of the inventory of wet suits, and issued a one-size-fits-all mask with a snorkel. I carried my gear to the Female Changing Room. This, I found, I was to share with an impossibly slim Japanese woman who, against all odds, managed to look stunning in neoprene. Only then did it strike me – no wee booties.

Once outfitted, we boarded one of the company’s twin-jet-powered catamarans, a craft designed to glide effortlessly over the water and to pose no danger of entanglement with anchors or engines to either dolphins or swimmers. On the boat, our briefing stressed the completely unstructured nature of the activity, and our responsibility to these extraordinary creatures. At Akaroa there is no program to feed or otherwise lure the wild dolphins to their human admirers. We would simply head out to the far reaches of the harbor where the pods were known to hang out, and enter the water when we found them. Under no circumstances would we obstruct the dolphins or attempt to touch them. No more than ten people – the maximum number of swimmers on our boat – were allowed in the water at one time, and we were to maintain a distance of at least five feet from each other. I wondered to myself how easy the latter would be once we had given ourselves over to the icy, choppy water and the thrill of the encounter, but at the time was simply grateful that the distance had been given in feet rather than the usual meters.

Clinging to the bow, drenched with spray and assaulted by increasingly stinging winds, we scanned the water and waited. In the meantime, there were distractions. A little blue penguin surfed the waves to our left. On our right, a mollymawk, a large and particularly fierce-looking relative of the albatross, drifted on updrafts only inches from the boat before settling in the water to observe us dispassionately.

Mollymawk

Suddenly, a word from our captain alerted us to the presence of dolphins. Sure enough, there were several pairs impossibly close to the boat, their rhythmic passage through the water forming the familiar arcs, their distinctive black and gray pattern discernible just below the surface. They were here. They were beckoning us. They were cute as hell.

While I wasn’t sure that two pairs constituted a pod sufficient to accommodate ten swimmers, I wasn’t left to ponder this. Other clients had already begun to enter the water from the platform at the rear of the catamaran. Not willing to risk the opportunity I had so eagerly anticipated, I rushed to the back, waited my turn on the ladder, and lowered myself into the water.

Two things were immediately apparent. First, the folly of flinging myself barefoot into 60-degree water was stunningly revealed. Despite my wetsuit, I was assaulted by the most pervasive, bone-numbing cold I had ever experienced, or would wish on another human being. Second, the dolphins were nowhere to be seen. Fighting to maintain an upright position, I strained to see beyond the waves crashing steadily into my face. Straightening my mask, I searched below me through the murky and empty depths.

As quickly as they had appeared and enchanted us, they were gone.

Perhaps the dolphins, having frolicked with the Germans earlier in the day, had already had enough serious fun. But as we headed back to port clutching cups of lukewarm cocoa, I found that strangely I was not disappointed. The dolphins had exercised their right to behave as the utterly wild creatures they are, and to elect not to swim with us. The experience couldn’t get any more authentic than that.

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