Swimming with Dolphins in Tauranga

Dolphins! How can you not get excited about dolphins?! Today is going to be our first dolphin encounter (hopefully) on the North Island and we just… can’t… wait! Let’s do this!

Welcomed with coffee and biscuits onto Dolphin Seafaris

Our trip with Dolphin Seafaris starts at 7.30am at the Tauranga Bridge Marina, where during this autumn season the sun is just rising, casting all sorts of golden reflections on the still harbour water. We meet the friendly team at the boat, Cameron, Lucy and Natalie. After Lucy sorts us out with some wetsuits and goggles to wear later in the trip, Natalie is making hot drinks for everyone. We’re all having a casual natter with coffee and biscuits, before slowly making our way out of Tauranga Harbour.

A Tauranga Harbour Cruise

Cameron, the skipper, hits the mic with some commentary to go along with our harbour cruise, telling the stories behind various points of interest like a statue of a Maori warrior at the harbour entrance and of course, the all-famous Mount or Mauao. It just happens to be a mountain that we hiked up the other day… Been there, got the T-shirt (a sweaty T-shirt)!

Once we hit the open ocean, we kind of expect the bumpiness of the swells to begin, but no! The ocean is as calm as a lake! It’s literally smooth sailing from here!

On the lookout for wild dolphins On the lookout for wild dolphins
There they are! There they are!
So close, we can almost touch them with our feet! So close, we can almost touch them with our feet!
Getting in the water with the common dolphins Getting in the water with the common dolphins

Dolphin Swimming 101

There are heaps of viewing areas on the catamaran vessel for optimal wildlife viewing but also soak up the Bay of Plenty sun, and we certainly take advantage of all the open upper deck, stern and bow of the boat throughout the trip. It’s at the bow of the boat that Lucy gathers all the dolphin swimmers to give a briefing of what’s going to happen today.

Lucy explains that because we swimming with wild dolphins, it’s up to the dolphins if they want to hang out with us. There are a couple of conditions that would mean we can’t swim with them, for example, if there is a young calf in the pod. We are not there to disrupt the dolphins negatively, but to just go check them out in their natural habitat.

Dolphin spotting with fruit and muffins

Now the work is up to the Dolphin Seafaris’ team who have the binoculars out and are heading to a couple of popular dolphin hangouts, such as reefs and where flocks of seabirds are. For the rest of us, we can sit, relax and help ourselves to a spread of refreshing pineapples and oranges and some naughty muffins! Nice!

We have to admit, there is a moment in the two to three hours of searching that we start to think the dolphins are just not interested today. Sure, it’s given us enough time to talk about all life’s mysteries while chilling out on the bow of the boat and for everyone to demolish the food. Then… Alas! We get our first sign of hope!

Dolphins from below…

“Here they come!”

Cameron comes on the speaker to draw our attention to a few groups of gannets floating on the water. Our attention is brought to the centre of the gannet various gannet groups where Cameron shouts: “Here they come!” 

Sure enough, black dots in the distance are splashing towards the boat in leaps and bounds, getting larger and larger until we can see them! Dolphins! They’re finally here!

Super Close encounter with the common dolphins

The common dolphins, a, well, common species of dolphin in New Zealand, glide through the water quickly to start swimming under the bow of the boat. Thanks to the super calm conditions today, the water is super clear to display the dolphins probably just as clear as being in the water with them!

We see everything, from their grey bellies to their eyes! We can even hear they high-pitched communication and clicking sounds! We get plenty of time to watch the pods of dolphins behave… We say “pods” in plural because the dolphins just keep on coming! It’s safe to say that the dolphins are interested enough for us to get in the water with them!

Close encounters with these beautiful and intelligent creatures Close encounters with these beautiful and intelligent creatures
They just don't want to leave us! They just don't want to leave us!
Jumping for the finale! Jumping for the finale!

Swimming with dolphins

We rush as much as we can rush into our skin-tight wetsuits on a slightly rocking boat. Two ladders have been extended like wings out of the stern of the boat for us to hold onto while Cameron slowly maneuvers the boat. With the boat still in motion, this makes us a lot more appealing than us flailing in the water. We hold onto the ladders, put our masks in the water, and start screeching songs in into out snorkels to attract dolphins. We don’t like to assume anything, but we think it was our rendition of the Star Wars theme tune that attracts group after group of three of four dolphins in regular intervals. They slowly swim below as if to check us weird humans out, before moving onto more interesting things, like the rest of those on the bow boat dangling their feet into the water.

A seal joins the party

Before we get too cold, we swap places with another group of swimmers but, since the dolphins are sticking around, everyone gets the opportunity to get back into the water if they want to. While Robin seizes this opportunity, Laura joins those watching from the bow of the boat at a group of dolphins circling a New Zealand fur seal who awkwardly looks like he showed up at the wrong party.

Jumps and acrobatics back to Tauranga

After spending about an hour and a half with the dolphins, it’s us that decides to leave the dolphins before they leave as to minimise our impact on they natural behaviour. But just because we’re leaving doesn’t mean that they won’t give us one last show. As the boat speeds up, the wake of the boat provides some good surf for the dolphins to gather speed and leap out of the water!

Just when we think all the dolphins have gone and it’s safe to start eating some lunch, another pod join us for a good part of the journey back! They glide with speed under the bow of the boat, again, using the wake as their apparatus for acrobatics. When all the dolphins finally disappear, we enjoy a relaxing journey back to Tauranga Harbour.

It’s back to the Pacific Coast Lodge for us for showers, work and a couple of games of ping-pong. Join us tomorrow for a day on a classic backpacker job: kiwifruit picking and factory work!

Laura and Robin

... and dolphins from above!
... and dolphins from above! Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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