Whales and Dolphins

7:20pm 2nd November

My mind has been blown. The last two days have been something rather special. Yesterday’s whale watching was wonderful, eventually. A freak couple of incidents meant our initial 11.45am cruise was cancelled and eventually rescheduled for 3pm. The staff were excellent, giving us 20% off and being extremely apologetic. We were happy enough, we took the opportunity to pop into the endless fascinating little ‘arty’ shops in Kaikoura.

The cruise itself was excellent — it had full internal A/V with a high-res plasma screen rendering the boat and surrounding ocean and scenery in full 3D. I was impressed! Never mind all the tech, we quickly found our first sperm whale.

They are utterly gigantic — around 20 metres, and 60 tons. It’s truly breathtaking when you see this gigantic mammal rise to the surface, spend 10 minutes or so getting its breath back, plumes of sea spray flying up from its blow hole, then majestically rise up and dive down, its tail the last thing you see before it plummets to the ocean floor some 1600 metres down. Utterly splendid. In all had four sightings, two of the same whale. The guide had an encyclopaedic knowledge of whales and would regale us with relevant tidbits of facts during the cruise. All in all a fantastic trip, and lots of pictures (admittedly a lot of bits of nondescript sea instead of majestic whale).

After the excitement of the cetaceous observation we needed a drink. We headed back into Kaikoura, studiously avoiding the disappointing Italian and instead venturing into the local pub cum sea restaurant. As Ness wasn’t hungry we started with a bottle of red wine and just enjoyed the vibe. Although it wasn’t too busy, there was a nice feeling and people were more than happy to chat. Most of the way through the bottle we ordered dinner; lamb shank for me and venison sausages for Ness. Again, the food was nice but not quite what we’d hoped; especially me with previous lamb dishes I’d have being superlative. We didn’t mind though, a live act came onto the tiny little stage and played some amazing guitar for our listening pleasure. A few glasses of Kahlua later and then we realised we had an early start the next morning — oops! We staggered back (me trying to take a long exposure picture of the moon on the way back…in the cold light of day it was a crazy blurry mess!)

The alarm clock came as an unwelcome disturbance this morning. With Herculean effort we crow-barred ourselves out of bed and drover over to the Dolphin Encounter HQ. There we grabbed a quick breakfast before donning full wetsuit gear (scarily tight stuff) and being herded onto a boat in search of Kaikoura’s local population of dusky dolphins.

It didn’t take long to find them and we got ready at the back of the boat. The klaxon sounded and we slunk into the water — 12 degrees Centigrade. Bloody cold, the first few seconds for everyone was hyperventilating through a snorkel, not much fun. But then, head down, look into the water. Oh my goodness — from out of the semi-darkness suddenly one, then two, then many inquisitive little dolphins swam into view.

I can’t articulate what it was like to be, for a few minutes, in their world. They are truly amazing creatures; graceful and playful, acrobatic and inquisitive. Oftentimes if you caught their interest they’d come, then loop around and around you. If you maintained eye-contact and span around with them, they’d stay with you, gradually creeping down and sometimes switching back and looping under you and going around the other way, playing ‘catch me’. They’re so bloody fast you need to do all you can to keep up the first couple of seconds. One time I managed to keep up with one that switched underneath me though I nearly drowned spinning ever further under until my snorkel end went under the surface!

By making noises under the water you could get their interest too, and by diving down. At one point I dove down and I had two or three around me as I descended — though the ultra buoyant wetsuits made it tricky. By the time I came to the surface I was puffing and panting like nobody’s business. We had a good twenty minutes swimming about, playing with the dolphins and generally swimming about in the ocean before we were summoned back on board to find another, larger pod. A few minutes boat-ride away and we decanted once again into the freezing Pacific to be met with more dolphins. These weren’t interested in us sadly, they sped off and we left them to it.

Safely back on board we dressed, our swimming was over, but we had yet to get some good photos. The captain skilfully navigated behind a travelling pod of dolphins who put on a display of acrobatics and swimming for us. Truly amazing, though as with the whales we have a large collection of empty water photographs again! One or two seem to have come out ok though! Our guide was excellent, telling us all manner of things about the dolphins and their behaviour. She turned out to be a Brit (from Weston Super Mare) who had come out to the dolphin tour pre-uni, been so taken by it she did a degree in marine biology. Over a period of years, including a year as a volunteer worker, she finally got a job doing the dolphin swimming tours. Amazing, she really loved her job, and we could totally see why. Ness and I were grinning like fools all the way back to the camper van.

Swimming with dolphins was everything I’d hoped it would be and a little more. It’s probably the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience; it really felt special for a few brief moments to be in their world, on their terms, you having to entertain them not the other way around. Given the chance I’d do it again in a snap.

We couldn’t top such an amazing experience, so somewhat disconsolately we got back into our snail’s home and drove on. Today’s stop off is Westport, on the western coast. It was a fair distance through stunning mountain ranges, but we probably needed the time to get our heads around our amazing experience earlier in the day. We’ve now parked up in the camp site and we’re contemplating dinner. Tomorrow we have another mainly driving day — we’re off to a glacier via a few choice stops along the way.

Filed under: New Zealand Trip
Posted at 19:49:39 GMT on 2nd November 2006.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago in the finance industry.