Swimming with dolphins: Northland, New Zealand

The chance to go swimming with dolphins is a great opportunity and here in NZ’s warmest waters it seems the perfect spot to do so. I’m going out on the Dolphin Eco-Experience in the Bay of Islands: well-named by Capt. Cook with its 140+ islands.

Once on board we learn the crew, including one called “Floppy’ have years of experience finding dolphins here and have lots of knowledge about their behaviour. Today we’re looking for bottlenose and common dolphins, baleen whales, orca, seals, fish, penguins and birds from the purpose-built vessel.

The day is overcast and with grey sky and grey sea, I’ve now decided I won’t be getting in the water and will view what we find from the boat – warm the water may be, but I like bath warm!  Of course, all over New Zealand, swimming with dolphins in the wild is subject to the NZ Department of Conservations’ rules and regulations, and the skipper’s discretion. In particular it’s not possible to swim with mothers and babies as they need to drink from their mother almost constantly.

We leave the Paihia wharf, pick up another couple from Russell, and are soon off on what seems to be a tiki-tour: this is New Zealand slang for –
1. a sight-seeing journey with no particular destination in mind.
2. taking the long way to a destination.
3. or, to wander aimlessly

Of, course we are not wandering aimlessly but cruising in and out of bays and around or past islands looking for the elusive dolphin. It seems it’s unusual to be travelling so far without seeing some of the 400 identifiable bottlenose dolphins that live between Tauranga and Cape Reinga. However, the gannets are lovely and so is the scenery despite the lumpy water and cloudy skies.

Suddenly their non-appearance is clear.

Word comes from one of the bigger boats heading for the Hole in the Rock – they have come across a pod of orca! No wonder the dolphins are hiding – their genes have not caught up with the fact that here in New Zealand the orca – also called the ‘killer whale’ in some parts of the world – do not eat dolphins but much prefer the apparently tasty stingrays!

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Aaron, the driver (or is he called the captain?) speeds up and heads for Deepwater Cove in the hope we too can see the orca. We can and do!

I have no problem not seeing the dolphins – the orcas are wonderful! A mother and baby is with them and it’s now I again wish I had a bigger and better camera – and more skills with the one I have! I also selfishly wish I was on the boat with no other travellers so I could get better views.

After watching and following the orcas (who are part of the dolphin family not whales) we head back towards Paihia, but first we stop at Otehei Bay, on pest-free Urupukapuka Island, for a coffee and toilet break. Incidentally this is where the American author and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey, lived and wrote about this area. (The Anglers Eldorado 1926)

For information about conservation on the islands in the Bay of Islands see Project Island Song