Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Swimming with Dolphins

When my friend suggested that we swim with dolphins on our trip to Kaikoura, I almost balked at the idea. Alongside boyfriends buying you teddy bears, splashing around with the ocean's gentle critters was way up there in the cheesiness stakes in my opinion. At the risk of damaging my ego, I now admit that swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura is one of the most magical things I've ever done and I'm forever grateful that my friend persuaded me to go.

Situated on the stunning East coast of the South Island, Kaikoura (meaning "meal of crayfish") is a tiny village whose shores are awash with huge wads of glistening seaweed. With its snow-capped mountains in the distance and bright murals adorning the walls, it exudes the air of a fairytale town and one would not be surprised if mermaid were to emerge from the sea.

We decided to stay at the YHA Kaikoura Maui hostel, which is just outside the main town centre and sits opposite the shores of the lapping sea. It's a cute cosy hostel with a very relaxed vibe and excellent value for money.

We organised our trip with Dolphin Encounter through the friendly staff at the YHA. We awoke the next day to find that the sky was filled with dark looming clouds and I scorned my poor friend for making me part with my hard earned cash. Part of me was praying that the trip would be cancelled but when we arrived at the Encounter centre it was not to be so. In spite of a sea-sick weather warning, enthusiastic guests were waiting in line, happily purchasing sickness-prevention tablets from over-zealous staff.

Too soon, we were all lead through to the back of the building where we were kitted out in an all-over-wetsuit, and feeling like eel-man from Scooby Doo, we were lead into the back room where we sat to watch a video about how to interact with the dusky dolphins:

Point 1: Strictly no touching!

Point 2: To get their attention, look them in the eye whilst spinning in circles, making high pitched noises.

I couldn't wait to put this into practice.

Out at sea the grey clouds thickened as the swell bobbed us up and down. Luckily the boat was quite roomy and sturdy and with the distraction of the albatrosses, I managed to successfully keep my breakfast down.

Once the right spot was located, I felt a rush of excitement as hundreds of black blobs and fins darted past the boat. We were given a float and on the blow of a horn we entered the water from a sitting position at the back of the boat. A second blow would indicate that we should return.

Immediately upon entering the water hundreds of dashing dolphins appeared before my snorkel. Anxious to get the most out of my experience, I began to make noises (which were akin to a monkey being attacked) whilst catching the dolphins eyes and forcing my flippers to spin me around in circles. Much to my sheer delight they loved it! Suddenly I had two calves playfully swimming by my side in a continual loop and after they'd zoomed off more followed.

After roughly half an hour of this erratic behaviour, I sadly faced up to the fact that my throat couldn't handle any more screeching and that my indulgent spinning had in fact left me feeling quite green. I boarded the boat where the crew had a good supply of sick buckets but with only a short journey back I was able to hang on to my food.

The whole experience left me quite overwhelmed. The sun eventually broke through that day but rain should not put you off, as the trip was enjoyable in spite of this. So next time you're in Kaikoura, slip on your flippers and go for a dip with the dolphins.

For more information about Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura and pricing, visit www.dolphin.co.nz/kaikoura

YHA Kaikoura Maui can be booked at www.yha.co.nz or by calling 0800 278 299.