New Zealand: Kaikoura and Dolphins

2 07 2009

If you have read my posts on Hawaii, you know about my love of dolphins.  One of the many reasons I wanted to go to New Zealand was to swim with dolphins in their native habitat.  In Hawaii, we were able to witness dolphins swimming beside our boat, but to be actually in the water with them has been a lifelong dream.  Kaikoura, a small seaside community in the east coast of the South Island, is the perfect place to experience sea life and dolphins in particular because of its unique location.  The town of Kaikoura sits on the edge of a peninsula that juts into the ocean in an area where ocean upswells bring up an abundance of marine life from the Hikurangi Trench.  Rich marine life and nutrients are pushed up near the surface, which then attracts whales, dolphins, seals, albatross and other sea life.

On the Kaikoura Penninsula, looking towards the town.

Beautiful seaweed on the beach in Kaikoura.

We arrived in Kaikoura in the late afternoon, just in time to race to dinner before it closed.  Since we were in Kaikoura, which literally means “meal of crayfish,” we of course wanted some crayfish (what Kiwis call lobster) for dinner.  Despite the abundance of crayfish in Kaikoura, however, this luxury food item is still quite expensive when eaten in a restaurant because of its popularity.  Luckily, we learned through speaking with several Kiwis that there is a way to get cheaper and fresher crayfish in Kaikoura.

Here are the exact instructions paraphrased from our motel owner on how to find crayfish in Kaikoura:  “You need to drive down the Esplanade, past the town, and almost to the end of the penninsula.  You will see a crayfish stand on the left.”  Miraculously, we were able to find this stand because it appears there is only one such stand, at least the day we were there.  The stand closes at 6 pm, though, so make sure you get there in time!

I have included a picture of the crayfish stand below so you know what it looks like.  We were able to pick our own live lobster from the cooler and have it cooked up in front of us.  The stand has a couple of tables with umbrellas where you can eat your food.  The crayfish stand is actually very gourmet and offers quite a menu.  We were skeptical when we first heard about this stand because it is on the side of the road in the middle of a virtually uninhabited place.  But we are so glad we went and were able to taste the bounty of Kaikoura.  We highly recommend it!

The Crayfish Stand in Kaikoura.  Astonishingly, just across the road from this stand was a bunch of sheep on a hill.  You just cannot escape the sheep in New Zealand.

After our crayfish dinner, we wandered along the beach on the Kaikoura peninsula and admired its beauty.  The sealife is so abundant here that I didn’t realize until I was standing on the beach for 15 minutes that a seal was only a few feet away from me the whole time.  We watched a breathtaking sunset until it got too cold to stay.

Another beautiful sunset in New Zealand.

We had an early night back at our motel because we had to wake up really early for the dolphin tour the next day.  Also, Kaikoura is probably the smallest town we visited in New Zealand and there isn’t much to do besides enjoy the scenery and sealife.  At this point in the night, we were constantly monitoring the weather because there was rain and wind in the forecast and we were afraid the dolphin swim would be canceled.  Incidentally, we also ended up watching the British version of “COPS,” which turned out to be highly entertaining.  Who knew in this day and age that there were still designated town drunks in small cities across England?

When we woke up the next day, the weather was ominous and we could hear raindrops on the roof.  When I called the Dolphin Encounter to check, however, I was informed that our scheduled trip was still on!  In fact, the earlier dawn trip had already gone out.  We quickly got ready and had breakfast in the Dolphin Encounter Cafe.  When our group was called, we were fitted for wetsuits, jackets, and snorkles.  I was afraid I might get seasick so I took a remedy.  We were also instructed on how to and how not to interact with the dolphins.  You are not allowed to touch the dolphins.  The company emphasized that it was a privilege to share the water with the dolphins and our goal was to entertain them and not the other way around.

We reserved our dophin tour through Dolphin Encounter, a well respected company in Kaikoura.  Now I will take another moment to talk about dolphins and eco-tourism.  The popularity of dolphins has created an entire industry out of dolphin tours.  While most operations are very conscious of the delicate nature of these graceful but wild animals and their homes, unfortunately a few exploitative companies have given a bad name to swimming with dolphins.  That’s why it’s very important to find out as much you can about the companies offering dolphin swims before supporting them through your participation.  We chose to use Dolphin Encounter because the company puts a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability, limiting contact so as not to jeapordize the resident dusky dolphin population, and spreading awareness of the plight of dolphins and their habitats.  You can read their mission statement here: Dolphin Encounter Mission Statement.

Now that I have said my piece, we can go on to the best part of our Kaikoura visit – the dolphins!  As with all tours of this kind, there is no guarantee that you will see dolphins.  Unlike tours in other countries, though, in NZ if you don’t see what you are meant to see, you get some of your money back!  Luckily we were able to sight a large dolphin pod after only a short time.

We saw this boat from our boat.

The next part of this trip was FUN.  The boat basically followed the pod of dolphins around the ocean and dropped off the swimmers into the water from time to time.  When I was in the water, I could literally see dolphins in front of me, behind me, under me, and all around me.  It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.

We also saw a seal. They are everywhere! I think this one was following me around.

Charles was smart and decided not to swim with the dolphins. Instead, he took some fantastic photos. I especially liked this series of shots.

What these pictures do not show, however, is how cold and rainy the day turned out to be.  Remember, we had to wear wetsuits in the height of summer just to swim in the water.  The weather was also rainy and windy that day, which made for cold, rough seas.  After getting in and out of the water 3 or 4 times, I started feeling seasick and very cold.  I chose not to go in the water again and the Dolphin Encounter people gave me blankets and hot chocolate to warm me up.  Unfortunately, my seasickness got the better of me and I got really sick.  When we got back to the base, I was able to take a hot shower and felt much better afterwards.

Despite my seasickness, which I think only happened because the seas were especially rough that day, I am happy that I was able to witness these magnificent mammals in their home.  I have always thought that dolphins were beautiful, but seeing them up close has made me appreciate their power and sleakness even more.  Next time, however, I hope to encounter them in warmer waters!


The Big Island – Ocean Tour (and Dolphins)

30 07 2007

When in Hawaii, one of the activities you must do is take an ocean tour. The sea is such a huge part of the culture and daily life in Hawaii that not doing something on the water is like going to New York and not seeing the Statue of Liberty. Most outfits do the same thing – they take you out on a boat, take you 1 or 2 places to go snorkeling, view sealife, and maybe check out some sea caves. There are two main kinds of boats – huge party boats that provide a big lunch or dinner with booze and are crammed with 30 people OR small boats with fewer people on a more personal tour. Most companies provide the snorkeling equipment, but you can also bring your own.

Dolphin Discoveries Boat

Even though the large boats had bathrooms, we chose to go with the smaller boats. We did our ocean tour with Dolphin Discoveries (DD) on the recommendation of a few people on the Tripadvisor Hawaii forum. DD takes you to the two best snorkel sites on the island, the Captain Cook monument and the Place of Refuge, and each tour has less than a dozen people.

Near the Captain Cook Monument

Near Captain Cook

The snorkeling here is incredible!  We spent about 45 minutes at the Captain Cook monument.  We saw a fish that looked like it was made of rainbow sherbet, lots of bright yellow fish, brain corral, and many other beautiful reef dwellers.  After that, we moved to the Place of Refuge for about 30 minutes, where we saw dozens of turtles all hanging out, and Charles and I also managed to get a glimpse of a white tip reef shark before it zoomed back into the deeper parts of the ocean.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have an underwater camera and I was too chicken to use the underwater bag for my camera.

A friendly honu, the sea turtle seen all over the island, shot with my regular above water camera.


Now I will take a moment to say a word about dolphins.  I know everyone wants to see a dolphin and secretly wants to frolic in the water with them and maybe even pet or ride one.  Heck, I am one of those people who would really love to do that.  However, we have to remember that we need to respect dolphins and that when we are in the water we are in their territory and habitat.  You should not chase dolphins (actually it’s against the law) and should try to do the least harm as possible.  Companies that chase dolphins only hurt the very animals they seek.  That being said, there are several reputable companies out there that are respectful of nature and wildlife but you may still get to see dolphins.

When you go on an ocean tour, there is a big chance you won’t see a dolphin.  The big rise in snorkeling and kayaking has disturbed many of the dolphin resting places near the island coasts, which is why preservation of their habitat is so important.  However, you still get to snorkel in two of the most amazing underwater sites, see lots and lots of turtles, and other wild sealife.  Think of the ocean tour as a sealife/nature tour in which dolphins may appear.  If they do appear, it is that much more special!

We were incredibly lucky because as we were leaving the Place of Refuge after snorkeling, one of our fellow boaters spotted a spinner dolphin.  Our captain stopped the engine completely so that we were completely quiet and still on the water.  Then we saw two more dolphins, and four more, and then what looked like hundreds of dolphins slowly making their way into the dolphin sanctuary that is just to the left of the Place of Refuge.  Apparently dolphins “sleep” in this sanctuary, although they use it less often than they used to.  2-3 dolphins were still not completely asleep, though, because they spun through the air.  Their bellies were pink, and they were SO CUTE!  Even though I had prepared myself for the possibility that we would not see any dolphins, I was SUPER excited to them.  They really made my day/week/month!

I am not the fastest photographer, though, so this is the only good picture I have of my dolphin experience.  It’s still proof I saw these wonderful creatures though!

Spinner Dolphins

After our dolphin experience, everyone on the boat was pumped to see more sea creatures so we drove around.  The captain followed the flight of a seabird and we were zooming through the water.  Then, someone spotted something in the water – a pod of pilot whales!  Madame Pele must have been smiling down on us that day because we had such an amazing experience seeing all the different life in the ocean.

Pilot Whales

I know I have used amazing and incredible a lot in this post, but this was really one of the best experiences of my life.

Next: Waipio Valley

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