Marine Mammal Encounters

After a recommendation from Gina and Conrad, we went swimming with the seals in Kaikoura. The experince was so good, we decided to head out and try our luck again with the dolphins. I think these have been two of the highlights of our trip so far.

Swimming with the seals was one of those trips that doesn't generate the same publicity as swimming with dolphins, but it was a fantastic experience. We were lucky enough to have timed our trip with a spring tide, which meant we got a whole hour swimming with young male seals. This was because seals are very territorial, and the high tides mean a lot of that territory is under water. The older, more aggressive seals 'own' the other higher, drier rock area and so the young'uns have to swim around until their ground is uncovered again, rather than risk a fight.

Kitted out in super thick wetsuits, we headed out on a boat to the area where the seal colony is found. Nearby was a young giant petrel bird whose beak we all tried to avoid. Apparently he had been there a day or two, and some people noticed he was missing an eye, which suggested he wasn't finding it easy to leave. He was rather magnificent, photos will be put up at some point, so the size of the bird can be appreciated.

The seals themselves were very inquisitive and liked to swim to the side of you, watch you and then swim off. They would often put their heads up out of the water and take a 360 degree look around. Sometimes I would turn around to find a seal who'd be watching me from behind and we would both surprise each other. The most memorable things I'm thinking of at the moment, was the size of their eyes, which were like deep brown saucers, and their teeth which I didn't want to investigate too much!

Unfortunately during this time, the waterproof camera David had bought, turned out to be not so waterproof and died. We've spoken to Pentax about this, and trying to work out if this is a warranty issue or an insurance claim.

We had so much fun with the seals and the fish, that I was convinced we should try again with the dusky dolphins that we hadn't got to swim with when we were in Kaikoura with my mum. The chance arose after we headed to Murchison to start our paddling stint strangely. While here I toyed with the idea of getting some instruction from the New Zealand Kayak School, and after some pointers from Mick Hopkinson I quickly signed up for a course a week later. We left with the advice that I shouldn't paddle till the course(!) so that I wasn't practising my paddling bad habits. So after a fwe days on the West Coast which I'm sure David will write about soon, we headed back to Kaikoura, via Christchuch to drop off the damaged camera, and Nelson which means we have been to every page on our road atlas!

I was trying not to get my hopes up after the disappointment of last time, but David was convinced the extra chocolate in our advent calendar was a good omen! We had to be at the centre at half 8 (we didn't fancy the half 5 trip they run!) and again kitted out in extra thick wetsuits. Again we headed out on the boat, and were lucky enough to see more massive sea birds. This time there were giant petrels and albatrosses with their 3.5m wingspan. They were being fed as part of an “Albatross Encounter” and so we stopped closeby to get some photos of these impressive birds.

Pretty soon, we were being told to kit up and sit on the back of the boat ready to jump in. As we nervously sat on the back, we started to see dusky dolphins jumping in the boat's wake. The pointing and exclamations quickly built up, before the propellor was stopped and we could jump in the water. We'd been recommended to 'entertain' the dolphins which involved us making noises mainly – it was pretty funny to hear everyone sing, hum or squeak in their efforts. However we were rewarded very quickly when dolphins swam by very closely. It is difficult to work out who's more intrigued by who, since the dolphins will be clearly watching you as they swim, and that eye to eye contact is an incredible experience. The dophins are renowned for a game they like to play, they swim in circles around you with the idea being you swim round too. Then they get faster and faster to see if you can keep up, until they swim off and you feel rather dizzy! Sometimes they'll change direction too, I played this game lots of time, making the swimming with dolphins seem exhausting. The whole time in the water, I was humming my own tune of “Beautiful dolphin, please come and play with me” – I feel it was worthwile, I'm convinced the song worked! We would be called back on to the boat every so often, so that we could keep with the main pod which on that day was 200-300 dolphins in size. No wonder we got to see so many underwater! What really thrilled me was when a dolphin swam by, accompanied by a tiny baby one. There were several mums and calves so this happened on a few occassions much to my delight. One time I was swimming back to the boat, there were so many dolphins, with several circling me – words don't really do this credit, it was an incredible experience. After several sessions of swimming with these amazing creatures, we got changed and took the opportunity to take photos. What a difference from our previous experience! Apparently that time, the dolphins were likely to have been pre-occupied as that was their mating season. No wonder they didn't want to play with us. This time though as we stood there watching the dolphins jump and perform various acrobats, I had the hugest smile. David preferred swimming with the seals, but to me swimming with dolphins was an experience it'd take a lot to beat. However I think we were very lucky to have the opportunity to interact with both of these awesome animals, I'd definitely recommend both!

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