Sunrise Dolphin Swim in Kaikoura

There are not many reasons to get up at 4am in New Zealand. It just isn’t the Kiwi way, even for many jobs! Waking up at 4am is considered crazy unless you are in a prime location to see the summer sunrise or you just happen to be swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura, like we are today!

Just off Kaikoura’s shore is a hotbed for marine life thanks to the Kaikoura Canyon along with its complex network of colliding warm and cold currents brings heaps of nutrients closer to the surface for the likes of dolphins to feed from. It’s the dolphins’ natural environment and we can’t wait to observe them doing their thing in the water with them!

Suiting up for a dolphin encounter

We rock up to Dolphin Encounter with its lit up sculpture outside the entrance leading the way in. After signing the standard waiver, we are being briefed in the changing area, one group at a time, as to what equipment we will be using. Our shoe size is judged on the spot for our flippers, as is our wetsuit size (the quick and sneaky up and down look by our guides), but they know what their doing so they get it totally right as we fit into our thick and dry wetsuits like a glove.

You gotta love those old safety briefing videos…

Trying to hold onto the right equipment (those flippers were mine, right?), we move into a room with a big screen to be briefed on the dolphin swim. The useful, albeit dated, video gets a few laughs from people when showing us what to do and what not to do when swimming with dolphins. It’s also a good reinforcement that we are swimming with wild dolphins, so it’s a privilege rather than a right.

Epic sunrise in Kaikoura! Epic sunrise in Kaikoura!
Sunrise mixed with anticipation for a dolphin swim... This is just too much for Laura Sunrise mixed with anticipation for a dolphin swim... This is just too much for Laura
An early riser challenging us to a race An early riser challenging us to a race
Even the seabirds are giving us a show Even the seabirds are giving us a show

Boarding the Kotuku

The video finishes and everyone’s itching to get out of the water. Literally, some people walk out the room as if they are going to walk straight to the ocean. The guides have to bring them back in again, assign us to the appropriate bus, and take us to our boats. We are pleased to be boarding Kotuku, a relatively small boat with a viewing deck on top for optimal observation and a more intimate experience.

Epic sunrise over the waters of Kaikoura

Our guide, Rachel, enthusiastically welcomes us onto the boat and keeps us all in check as Kotuku is lowered into the water and follows two other boats of dolphin swimmers out into the fiery red sunrise. Seeing a sunrise from the shore is one thing, but watching the sunrise when you’re speeding across the water, the glassy ripples reflecting pink and red hues, is something special!

We see our fellow dolphin swimmer boats on the horizon. A low mist hangs above the water with a backdrop of the Kaikoura Ranges and dramatic cloud formations glowing red in the sky. On our wake behind the boat, a dolphin jumps out of the water, then another, then another! This is our first sighting of the dusky dolphins – the most common species dolphin found in Kaikoura. (Bottlenose, Hector’s dolphin, common dolphin and orca are just some others seen out here). Apparently, these dusky dolphins are just a taste of what’s to come, as our skipper, Gary, does not find this pod of about 10 dolphins worthy of stopping just yet…

Preparing for our first dolphin swim in Kaikoura!

About 20-30 minutes into the boat ride, it seems that the dusky dolphins are extremely interested in the boat, meaning they may not be too insulted if a bunch of backpackers gets in the water with them. As soon as Rachel says we can get ready for a swim, you will never have seen people get changed so fast – and flippers, hood, mask and a snorkel are not exactly your everyday t-shirt! Rachel tucks a few stray hairs out of our masks, making sure we’re comfortable, sprays some anti-fog spray in the mask, and we are good to go on the sound of the horn.

Look out below!

Singing, diving and acting like idiots for the dolphins

As soon as that horn blows, we are in – not caring about the temperature (the wetsuits prove to be very efficient)! Almost instantly, we see dolphins underwater! Using a few tricks that the briefing video suggested, we sing to the dolphins, keep eye-contact as they circle beneath us, dive underwater… The interesting we look, the more they will be interested in us. We never thought we’d be trying to win over dolphins’ affections in New Zealand, yet here we are!

We honestly can’t believe how many dolphins are swimming around us and so close too! Three at a time will dive underneath us, while the odd lone dolphin will slow down to check us out. They are not particularly large, at only 165-195cm long, so it’s certainly doesn’t feel threatening to swim with them (and thankfully, they don’t seem to be threatened by us).

Hundreds of dolphins!

Time seems to have no meaning when the excitement of swimming with dolphins takes over your senses, but it feels like we have a good amount of time in the water with them – most of which we can see dolphins… And that’s just our first swim.

Back on the boat, we speed to our next destination. If we thought we saw a lot of dolphins before, then what we are about to see is carnage! Dusky dolphins swim in pods than can be around 100 to around 1000 dolphins! The pod ahead of us with many jumping out of the water, certainly seem to be between these numbers.

Robin's on the look out for some fishy friends Robin's on the look out for some fishy friends
See you on the flip side! See you on the flip side!
Super close viewing of the dusky dolphins Super close viewing of the dusky dolphins

Swimming with the dolphins Vs. watching the dolphins

It’s back in the water with, yet again, dolphins showing heaps of interest in us. While Robin frolics in the water with the dolphins, Laura takes the opportunity to take photos from the viewing deck – the perfect place to appreciate how many freakin’ dolphins there are right now! It’s madness!

Meanwhile, Robin is watching mother dolphins swimming below him with their calf swimming close to her stomach. He even swears he saw a couple mating: “Oops, sorry guys.” It’s a lot different experience watching them behave underneath the water than from the top of the boat, where Laura is witnessing dolphins emerging with their dorsal fin and others jumping left, right and centre in their hundreds!

Robin finally gets seasick!

After one more dolphin swim, Rachel is handing out blankets to keep people warm, offering cookies, and thinking about giving us hot drinks, but not that the excitement has stopped, many of us in the boat have realised they are quite seasick… EVEN ROBIN! If you remember any blog post where we have been out on the water, you will know that Robin prides himself on being quite the sea dog, growing up on a sailing boat, yadda, yadda, yadda… While Laura has met most sailing or diving tours with waves of sickness. She had taken her seasickness tablets this morning, so finally the tables have turned, as Robin throws up in his snorkel… In all seriousness, take some seasickness tablets if you are going out on the water in Kaikoura.

The last part of the Dolphin Encounter tour is an opportunity for everyone to snap photos and watch dolphins from outside of the water, again, watching the dusky dolphins jumping and leaping along with the boat.

Back to dry land via a seal colony

We take a quick detour to a seal colony occupying a small and rocky offshore island, then head back onto shore – a sigh of relief for those who are seasick, but let’s be honest. No one really cares too much when they’ve just watched hundreds of super lively dusky dolphins at the most stunning time of the day.

Ah, we could talk all day about this amazing experience as we head back to our accommodation at the appropriately-named, Dusky Lodge & Backpackers (and, oh wait, we can since we did the tour so early in the day!) But tomorrow, we’ll give Robin’s poor stomach a rest by whale spotting from the sky in a whale watching flight. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Intuitive dolphins are keeping their beedy eyes on us
Intuitive dolphins are keeping their beedy eyes on us Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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Comments
  1. This is an awesome article. Thank you! I am visiting kaikoura for whale watching and dolphin swimming in 2 weeks.

    Comment avatar Eden Brosnan
    08/02/2018 at 8:08 pm
    1. Glad to hear you like the article, it was an awesome experience. Find us on Youtube too where you’ll be able to see the video soon 😉

      Comment avatar Robin
      08/02/2018 at 9:22 pm
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