Fresh air and frivolity

G Magazine

Bursting with marine life, the waters off Kaikoura in New Zealand are a magnet for fans of fins, wings and a splash of adventure.


Credit: Dennis Buurman


Credit: Dennis Buurman


Credit: Fay Prideaux


Credit: Dennis Buurman

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April in the Kaikoura Peninsula: the mountains, freshly dusted with snow from an early dump two nights ago, glisten in the sun, as does the South Pacific Ocean, a complete contrast to the bleak grey of the previous day. I don a full-length hooded 5 mm wetsuit and vest, ready to brave the 15°C water. Our surroundings are spectacular and I know I’ve struck it lucky with the weather. Will I be lucky with the famously playful dusky dolphins too?

Natural destination

We’re headed for a spot a kilometre out from South Bay – a 10-minute boat ride. There, far below the surface of the waves, lies the Kaikoura Canyon. Dipping more than a kilometre lower than the surrounding sea floor in some places, the canyon is a meeting point for a warm subtropical ocean current from the north and a colder, nutrient-rich flow from Antarctica. The convergence of these currents creates an unusually rich feeding ground for marine life. And it’s the opportunity to encounter dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), giant sperm whales and a great range of pelagic (ocean-going) birds so close to shore that draws more than 900,000 visitors to this biodiversity hotspot each year.

Located on the rugged east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Kaikoura is a seaside settlement of just under 4,000 permanent residents. Its two strong offshore ocean currents cause constant undersea upwellings, which lift nutrients from the sea floor to the surface. This creates perfect conditions for the growth of plankton, which kickstarts a highly productive food chain.

The dusky dolphins common to these waters have adapted their feeding habits in response to the currents. Unlike populations in other locations around the world, which feed during the day, the duskies in Kaikoura forage for food at night. This is when their favourite food, red arrow squid and lantern fish, which normally hide at 200 m during the day, migrate to the surface. Night feeding reduces the dolphins’ diving range by as much as 170 m, saving them time and energy. As a result, daytime hours can be spent socialising with each other and the humans who travel great distances for the chance to swim with them.

Another resident of Kaikoura’s waters, the giant sperm whale, can be sighted all year round on tours with Whale Watch, New Zealand’s only marine-based whale watching operation; launched in 1987 by the indigenous Kati Kuri people. Sperm whales, the biggest of the toothed whales, are top of the food chain in Kaikoura Canyon. With teeth weighing up to a kilogram each, these massive mammals trawl the depths of the canyon preying on giant squid.

The feeding habits of Kaikoura’s marine life provide a smorgasbord for seabirds, including up to 14 species of albatross that visit the area annually to feed on chunks of squid brought to the surface by the resident sperm whales. Kaikoura’s tag of ‘the albatross capital of the world’ is best put to the test by joining the town’s very
own ‘old man of the sea’, affectionately known as Gazza, on an Albatross Encounter. This involves a short boat ride to visit the birds at their local hangout alongside a local fishing boat, where you can marvel at their four-metre wingspan.

Aquatic acrobatics

Swimming with the dolphins is a Kaikoura ‘must do.’ Known for their spectacular jumps, somersaults and backflips, the dusky dolphins are reputed to be among the most acrobatic of dolphin species. Pod numbers in the Kaikoura area range from 100 to 1,000 depending on the time of year.

As the skipper cuts the engine and we take up positions on the open deck at the stern, the sight of more than 50 dorsal fins breaking the surface, jumping and leaping, is all the encouragement we need. The moment the horn sounds, signalling motors are off, we plunge into the water. There’s a sense something special is about to happen, tinged with an element of danger. This is open ocean – anything could happen.

Visibility is low due to the previous day’s stormy waters and at first I can’t see anything. The duskies are not performing animals trained to interact on cue, so lying on top of the water waiting and hoping they will come is not an option.

We’ve been told that mimicking dolphin behaviour can attract the duskies, so I launch into my best impersonation. I click and hum and twist and turn, all the while scanning the waters below. Amazingly my efforts are rewarded almost immediately.

Flanked by two dolphins on either side, I don’t know which way to look. My immediate reaction is to cry, “There they are!” but, with a mouth full of snorkel and no-one listening anyway, I simply smile in the silent satisfaction that they’ve hooked up with me, albeit fleetingly.

The curved shape of dolphins’ mouths makes it look like they’re constantly smiling back at you. This only adds to the temptation to reach out and touch them, but the risk of jeopardising their trust is too great. Reality is I’d be lucky to make contact. Beside you one second, gone the next, the speed and agility of the duskies has to be seen to be believed.

As quickly as the dolphins arrived, they vanish. Our skipper responds by sounding the horn for us to reboard and the boat follows the fins for a second drop. First jump nerves about the depth of the water, possible strong currents or the chance of encountering dorsal fins of the dangerous kind have disappeared, to be replaced by one thought only – “I want more!”

On the second drop I learn that not all dolphin action happens under water. The pod’s resident attention-seeker leaps out of the water and somersaults in midair. We launch ourselves in his direction, watching wide-eyed for the silvery outlines of darting duskies but we’re out of luck. The acrobat has gone, and with him, the pod. It’s a reminder that the dolphins are in charge here, not the humans. We reboard for our final drop.

The excitement mounts – dorsal fins are in plentiful supply. Having fine-tuned my dolphin antics by this stage, I twist, turn and sing my way through the water and the duskies don’t disappoint. It’s hard to discern whether the faint, intermittent clicking noises I can hear belong to them or my fellow snorkellers, all vying for attention. This thought evaporates when a dolphin appears beside me and makes eye contact. Amazingly, it not only makes eye contact but holds it. At first I think I’ve imagined it, but a second encounter leaves no doubt. It’s fleeting; it’s enticing and leaves me confident they’re enjoying the experience as much as I am.

When the final horn sounds I’m both elated and exhausted. Swimming with dolphins is physically demanding but warm showers, hot chocolate and gingerbread biscuits ensure a quick recovery. On the return trip, talk is replaced by silence; time to reflect on the rare privilege of swimming with wild dolphins, in their environment, on their terms.

Giving Back

Long-term Kaikoura residents Ian Bradshaw and Lynette and Dennis Buurman launched their boat tour business, Encounter Kaikoura, over two decades ago. In 2009 the Buurmans established the Encounter Foundation, devoting a percentage of each tourist fare to a trust fund to support local and global environmental initiatives.

The planting of native New Zealand trees on 2.3 hectares of local land is underway as is sponsorship of the Southern Seabird Solution Trust (SST). Eighteen albatross species are classified as vulnerable or endangered. As surface feeders, these seabirds often swallow baited longline hooks before they have time to sink. SST develops educational programs for commercial and recreational fishers in the southern hemisphere to encourage fishing practices that don’t harm seabirds.

In an attempt to reduce the environmental impact of tourism in Kaikoura, local non-profit organisation, Innovative Waste Kaikoura (IWK) has set up the Trees for Travellers (T4T) project. It’s essentially a carbon offset scheme through which tourists can purchase an indigenous New Zealand tree to be planted in a local heritage reserve. T4T provides email confirmation of the planting date for each tree and a ‘Find your tree’ feature on its website, using Google Earth mapping. For more info, see www.treesfortravellers.co.nz

Fact File
Getting there:

Fly to Christchurch and travel 2.5 hours north to Kaikoura by hire car, bus or train. The road and train line hug the coast, providing spectacular scenery. Alternatively, fly to Wellington, catch the interisland ferry to Picton and drive 2 hours south to Kaikoura.

When to go:

The summer months (September to March) offer warmer air and water temperatures for water-based activities. However, dolphin, albatross and whale watching tours are available throughout the year.

Where to stay:

Choose from camping grounds, hostels, B&Bs, farmstays and self-contained apartments. Visit www.kaikoura.co.nz/main/accommodation


Australians don’t require visas for NZ. No vaccinations required.

Carbon offset:

According to Carbon Planet, return flights from Sydney to Christchurch create about 0.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, which costs $22.50 to offset. Return flights to Wellington create double the carbon emissions, costing $45 to offset.

More information:

www.encounterkaikoura.co.nz, www.whalewatch.co.nz