New Zealand South: Swimming with Wild Dolphins in Kaikoura

NZ: Days 3 and 4

The Kiwi Bus

The KiwiE bus arrived at 7am ; We threw our luggage below and jumped on- feeling like it was our first day of school;  There were only 2 seats left at the back and everything was rammed to its full capacity.
Our driver, whose name I forget, gave us our handbook and briefly went through what we needed to do; Within a few minutes of sitting down we were required to sign up for accommodation, our number of nights stay and were told about all the activities at Kaikoura that we would have to sign up to if we wanted to do them; it was all a hell of a lot to take in, but we were helped by the more experienced KiwiE riders. Those coming to the end of their tour reeled off story after story about the activities, recalling their highlights and must-dos; Over the next 30 days we would have all this ahead of us… It was a lot to look forward to!

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The Drive to Kaikoura

After we had been given the chance to properly wake up, the driver recalled the events of Christchurch and informed us about the next location on the tour,Kaikoura, which means, in Kiwi, to ‘Eat Crayfish’ and the location is world famous for its marine-life.
Having read many blogs about New Zealand before I left I was particularly excited to get the chance to swim with pods of wild dolphins, which I was told could reach up to 1000 strong- though in reality I pictured about 20- but even that would be amazing! Aside from swimming with dolphins, other activities included whale watching and fishing for crayfish.
We stopped for breakfast at a small shack, where Hay and myself were informed that we had been allocated a dolphin diving spot for the 1pm boat the following day- KiwiE gets three allocated slots and can reserve up to 6 people in each slot.
We reached Kaikoura before midday and after a quick tour through the small seaside town were dropped off at our hostel Top Spot to check in.
The hostel was fairly basic and laid-back; Pretty much everyone from the bus stayed here so it was good to meet everyone and get the drinking underway.
We took a brief stroll around the town, grabbing some budget food to take back and cook for dinner.
Alcohol and dinner at hand, we joined almost everyone else in the roof space, overlooking the sea, and watched a few movies.
We were once again prepped on what was to come ahead- most of the advice was to spend as much time in Queenstown as possible and to eat a ‘Fergburger.’- Apparently ‘The best burger in the world!’

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Diving with Dolphins: Take 1

We were booked in for our dolphin tour at 1pm. Jay, myself and a few others made our way down to the tour office, to discover that the afternoon boats had all been cancelled due to the weather- which had just started to turn- An absolute bummer. Adding to our disappointment, we were then told that there were no free slots for tomorrow either and that we would have to go on to a waiting-list- It put a real dampener on the whole day. We gave the woman our mobile number in case any free slots turned up.
With the sea out of bounds there really isn’t much else to do in Kaikoura apart from stroll along the coastline- so we did exactly that.
We walked down to a seal colony, where we only managed to see 3 seals- so much for a colony. The weather was gloomy, there were no seals and we probably weren’t going to get to dive with the dolphins- shit luck!

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In the evening we decided to stay an extra night and chance it that we would somehow get on to one of the boat tours.
With the rain coming in, everyone was confined to the neat little roof-space, where we once again watched movies- this time with a mostly different crowd as a new bus load of people had come and the load from last night had left.
Again, with little else to do, we started drinking with the new crowd and once again we were advised that we had to eat at Queenstown’s famous ‘Fergburger.’
I got a call from the dolphin dive shop late in the evening and the woman told us that one space was available, putting us in a pretty awkward situation. Nonetheless, we held the spot hoping that there might be another pull out or that we could blag our way on board- fingers crossed.

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Diving with Dolphins: Take 2

We headed down to the dolphin centre for 9am with the hope that we would both be able to get on board. ‘What do you mean there’s only one space?’ No, we’re definitely booked on for two!’ ‘Oh god!’ Confused, the woman trawled her computer and managed to squeeze another slot for the later 1pm time. Although we wouldn’t be going out on the same boat we were chuffed just to be going. Just as we were flipping a coin as to who would go first, the two Danish girls behind us in the queue (who were also supposed to be on the cancelled boat with us the day before) also found themselves in the same position- with them being split at different times. Therefore, we swapped our spaces so both of us would be able to go together. Lucking hell! The girls took the earlier slot, so we headed down to the beach once again to kill the remaining hours- the shoreline was definitely a lot more stunning in the sun and when we were in a good mood!

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Diving with Dolphins: Finally

We were back at the Dolphin encounter shop for 1pm, just as the girls were getting back. They had smiles from ear to ear and told us they swam with 400 dolphins…pumped! We were fitted into our wetsuits and then went through to a cinema room to watch a short presentation on what we were about to do;
We were to get 5 dives off the back of the boat and would have to make dolphin noises and splash about to get the playful dusky dolphins to swim with us.
We were told about the 3km Hikurangi trench that attracts all types of Whales, Orca, Seals and the Dolphin themselves- its one of the richest areas of marine life on the planet! Presentation over, we were driven to our boat, which accommodated for 14 divers and about the same number of spectators.

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We were told that the pod was about an hour away. As we motored along the coastline and got further from the shore, seals began to leap out of the water more frequently and the occasional huge albatross swooped overhead. We passed a BBC film boat who had been out filming the marine life for a new series. Everyone was expectant and prepared for something special.

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Then we came upon them- the pod estimated between 400-700 strong flipped, somersaulted, leapt and jumped out of the water, through the air and cut back into the water- the whole pod covering the distance of a football field- it was insane!

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The boat drove to the front of the pod and we assembled ourselves at the back of the boat: The buzzer sounded and everyone jumped into the ocean, making goofy dolphin noises and splashing about. Within seconds the whole pod carved right through us. The experience is something I will never ever forget. 400+ wild Dolphins swimming up to and past me with the occasional playful one doing circles around me as I made perfect eye contact with them.

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Some loved the attention diving down and around, while others sped off within a few seconds. They were so quick and agile, and despite trying to keep up with the occasional few, I was quickly left behind. The whole experience had lasted a little over 5 minutes, but felt more like 25.
The pod had past us and we swam back to the boat, everyone speechless. 4 more dives….

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We repeated the process, with the second dive definitely being the best one- a smaller dusky looped around me about 4-5 times, creating a little tornado of water- I kept almost perfect eye-contact with it the whole time- it was unbelievable!! The pod definitely seemed bigger the second time and we were greeted by wave after wave of dolphin.

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The final 3 dives were equally as great, with many of us diving deeper with the dolphins and trying our hardest to keep up with them.
After an hour of diving and the most incredible wild encounter I think I will ever experience our time swimming with the pod had come to an end. Insane!
The boat continued following the pod for another 30 minutes and we watched from the deck, with hot chocolate in hand, as the dolphins performed more flips and routines for us and came up alongside the boat. The best £85 I’ve ever spent!! I wanted to do it again and I would without hesitation. What an experience!

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Dolphin Encounter, Kaikoura: $170 NZ/ £85     *****
Top Spot Hostel, Kaikoura: $25 NZ/ £12 p/n       **

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