The horn blared loudly signifying it was okay to jump in, and we slipped off the end of the boat into the icy cold water, immediately surrounded by a pod of 250-300 wild dusky dolphins. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I sat there floating on top of the water looking to the left, right, behind, and below me — dolphins were everywhere! Having the opportunity to swim with dolphins may just be [hands down] one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life.
Kaikoura truly is the hidden gem of the South Island, and if you’re one of those that takes the extra time to visit, you’ll know exactly why it’s so special. This coastal town is nestled right between the ocean and the mountains, giving you scenic views every direction you look. The people are friendly, food is delicious, and the overall feel of the town leaves you wanting to move in for as long as possible.
Unfortunately for us, we had no clue about Kaikoura until about eight months after we entered NZ for our one-year working holiday. Those last four months were some of the busiest for us — Derik was finishing up his contracting project, and we were beginning to map out our plans for the months to come. After I heard tales of a certain coastal town (with its amazing dolphin swimming and whale watching tours) 6 hours (ish) north of Dunedin, I just knew we had to get up there before we left. The days were getting colder as winter approached, and Kaikoura no longer would be booming of summer vacationers and tourists, and it was 90% certain to be cold, cold, cold.
We partnered up with Haka Tours our last couple weeks in New Zealand, and wouldn’t you know it, Kaikoura was one of the stops on tour! I couldn’t be more thrilled to get the chance to visit, even if it was literally days before we left New Zealand, and get to participate in one of the most infamous activities in Kaikoura: swim with a pod of dusky dolphins.
I know what you’re thinking, “Amanda, you just said that it was approaching winter right? And you’re voluntarily jumping into ice cold water?” The answer is yes…I’ll explain that here in a second.
The day we arrived in Kaikoura was a brisk one; we woke up to the sight of fresh snow on the mountain peaks and a cold breeze in the air. The sky was brilliantly blue and the sun was shining, and even though a coat was pretty much required, the sun helped cut the chill from the air. We walked into the Encounter Kaikoura office and were met by two of the Encounter staff, both smiling and friendly, even with it being early morning. Our contact/health information was quickly gathered, and and we were whisked away to shimmy in the thickest wetsuits I’ve ever seen (remember what I was saying about the ice cold water?). After about 10 minutes of working my way into a wetsuit that seemed tailor-made for me [after it was on], we grabbed our snorkels, hoods, booties, masks, and flippers and watched a brief informational video about the Dusky dolphin pod and what to expect while out in the water.
Once the video was finished, we were introduced to our boat crew and escorted onto a bus that took us to the boat. A pod of 250-300 Dusky dolphins had been spotted not far away earlier, and we were told we would be swimming amongst them within minutes after boarding the boat. The excitement in the air on our bus ride over was electric. Waterproof cameras were ready to go, masks sprayed with defogger, and flippers were out.
Was everyone good with jumping in ice cold water? YES.
Just as promised, we spotted the dolphins within five minutes after leaving the dock. We put on the rest of our gear: snorkels, googles, masks, booties, and flippers, and waited at the back of the boat as we approached the pod. Once the dolphins were surrounding us and interested with the boat, a horn would sound and we could jump in. Because we were so excited, I feel like the anticipation of jumping in made the horn take forever to sound, but it finally did, and we were sliding into the water literally smack dab in the middle of the pod.
Dolphins were to the left, right, behind, and below us…absolutely everywhere. The shock of the cold water on our exposed faces took some getting used to, but the pure awe and wonder of the dolphins overshadowed the cold. How could there be so many! Dusky Dolphins are naturally curious, so if you swam around like an idiot and made weird noises through your mask, you’d get more attention from them. I found that the dolphins loved it when I swam in tight circles, and they would mimic me and do the same thing as they looked straight into my eyes. Can you imagine?!?!?!? The feeling of a dolphin looking you square in the eyes while they’re happily swimming wild and free in their natural environment is beyond amazing. It’s their choice to swim with you, and the pleasure and experience is indescribable.
We were able to swim with the dusky dolphins for a good 45 minutes before the frigid water started to take it’s toll. As much as I would have loved to swim with the pod all day, my legs and feet could no longer kick, and I couldn’t feel my hands or face. When the horn blared again for us to return to the boat, we were met with hot cocoa and soup to take the edge off (how’s that for a nice surprise?!). We then changed out of our wetsuits and followed the dolphin pod in our boat for another hour, which was amazing news for someone like me who wanted to take ALL the pics! We also had a surprise visit from the Albatross (biggest sea bird in the world), which was yet another NZ bucket list item to check off.
Hands-down, out of everything we did in New Zealand, our dolphin swim with Encounter Kaikoura was my favorite thing of all. I am so thankful we had the opportunity to experience dolphins in the wild, and get a glimpse into their world! Everything about the tour was perfect, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.
I put together a short video of our time out on our dolphin encounter, which also happens to be our very first vlog! I hope you enjoy, and make sure you turn the video quality up to HD. :)
Dolphin Encounter Ticket Prices:
Adult Swim: $170 NZD
Child Swim (8-14yrs): $155 NZD
Adult Watch Only: $90 NZD
Child Watch Only: $45 NZD
Personal GoPro rentals also available for your tour.
Derik and I were guests of Encounter Kaikoura, and were able to go on a dolphin tour in exchange for an open and honest review. You should know that all opinions always and forever will be MY OWN.