Wild Barley Rewind: Dolphin Swim

15th January 2007

Sitting on some large, smooth boulders listing to the waves roll onto the small pebbly beach below, watching the sun play on a turquoise bay and the shadows moving on the impressive mountains beyond, I reflect on what was, to date, one of the most amazing, stunning, awesome mornings of my life. The fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, a dream that had spurred me on through school and university. It was a gorgeous sunny, hot, mostly clear afternoon on the South Island of New Zealand. Such a different picture to this morning.

The stunning scenery of New Zealand’s South Island

We had woken early, like 4 am early, to join the 5.30 am Dolphin Encounter trip in Kaikoura where we were staying for a while during our 4.5 month stay in New Zealand. Slightly crestfallen I climbed out of the tent to see thick fog shrouding everything, dull in the darkness. We were early to the centre. The fog was still thick and murky, blocking the usual lighting of the sky that signals dawn. Nothing could be seen beyond what seemed like the impenetrable fog, not even the ocean beyond the beach. To my relief the trip was going ahead, although it would be harder to find dolphins. Brimming with barely contained excitement I donned my wetsuit and grasped my snorkel and mask as we were ushered into an auditorium to watch a safety and best practice video. We were then bused to the marina, where in the murky fog we boarded our boat and headed out to sea. It was a little eerie moving through the dense fog, not being able to see much all around, bobbing over the waves which, mercifully seemed low. As we travelled blue sky began to appear above, and the fog became whiter rather than murky grey. In patches the fog was thinning revealing the New Zealand coastline, but for the most part sea and sky merged in one seamless, greyish white mass. Further out and the sea calmed down so much not even a ripple could be seen.

Twenty five minutes or so of steady chugging through the fog, the boat slowed and the guide said the words I had been waiting a lifetime to hear ‘we’ve located a pod of dusky dolphins, get ready to swim guys!’

Heart pounding, I pulled my mask, hood, snorkel and flippers on and sat at the back of the boat, waiting for the signal to get in. That is when I saw them. Up ahead, a huge group of dusky dolphins, surfacing in groups, breaching right out of the water! The ocean was calm and the fog no longer mattered, we had found dolphins and I was about to make a dream come true and get in the water with them!

The horn sounded, renting the air with its harsh sound, making me jump so absorbed in the dolphins I had been. I slid into the greenish water and began to swim, scanning left and right and below. If it was cold, I didn’t notice, I just headed for the dolphins. Then out of the greenish gloom they came, gliding effortlessly towards us, twisting, turning and diving deep. It was the most amazing, stunning, awesome, incredible experience. Putting your head under and watching groups of dolphins cruise by. I was almost squealing in delight, they were so graceful and beautiful. I kept diving down, trying to keep them interested for there was no keeping up if they moved away, such was their grace and speed through the water. It was their choice to come to you. Lifting my head above the water and a dolphin would surface a metre or so away! Magic!

But it was the world below the surface that was so mesmerising, and the most incredible moment was when I made eye contact with a dolphin as it glided by. Round, once, twice, three times in a circle, never breaking contact, so close, before disappearing into the green gloom. It was incredible.

As the pod moved away we climbed back on board the boat. I was babbling, so excited and filled with laughter.

Incredible dusky dolphins

We moved on, and then had the chance again to get in the water with another group. Once more I slid into the green gloom, a grin already on my masked face. This time the large pod moved off quite quickly, but one dolphin kept returning to our group of swimmers, cruising amongst us, interacting with each of us. You would be swimming along, nothing but green gloom all around, and then suddenly this dolphin would appear, either surfacing right next to you, or swimming alongside or beneath you. It was like he would pause, taking you in, slowly cruising by before swimming off again. It was breath taking.

That day we entered the water for a third time. This time more of them hung around, swimming past in groups of two or three. Then they disappeared. I stuck my head above the water trying to gauge where the boat and the dolphins were. I saw the guide and skipper pointing behind me. Turning I saw a sight that I will never forget. Heading directly towards the group of swimmers was a group of 50 or 60 dolphins, mid-air, porpoising, travelling at speed. A wall of dolphins! The pod zoomed past the swimmers, kicking up white spray. As they rushed past I looked down and in the darkness below I saw so many more, speeding past below me. Then they were gone.

The swim was over, but I continued to bubble with excitement, exhilarated by the whole encounter… We now had a chance to watch the group, and to take some photos. The group had slowed down and were milling around, leaping clear of the water that remained calm and became almost silvery as at last the sun began to break through the fog. They are stunning to watch, so acrobatic. Renowned for their acrobatics, as a kid I had read all about them, now here I was watching them flipping, body slapping, twisting in mid air. The group also included lots of calves that kept popping up next to their mothers.

And then it was time to go. To leave the dolphins to their day. I had waited so long to swim with dolphins. It had been ambition ever since I saw my first dolphin at the age of five. Finally that dream had come true, it was such a special experience for me, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. Above all else I was humbled to have encountered dolphins in the water, in the wild, on their own terms #wildandfree.

Dusky dolphin leaping

We went swimming with dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand with Dolphin Encounter, Kaikoura. These guys have permits issued by the Department of Conservation to operate a commercial operation with marine mammals, and comply with Marine Mammal Regulations.


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