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Swimming with the Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura

I stood in my flippers, looking out at the calm sea beyond. Dorsal fins cut through the surface in every direction, but instead of being scared, I couldn’t wait to get into the water. As our boat had motored out into the Pacific Ocean, we’d watched two pods of dusky dolphins come together in front of us, meaning I was about to dive in with around five hundred of the playful (and completely wild) creatures.

Underwater Closeup of a Dusky Dolphin

Underwater closeup of a dusky dolphin.

I was expecting the shock from the cold water even before I leaped less-than-gracefully into it. I was there in January, the warmest time of the year, and the ocean off the Kaikoura Peninsula was still only around 19C. Luckily I was wearing one of the thickest wetsuits I’d ever put on (with booties to match), which kept me reasonably warm after that initial “what am I doing?!” moment.

Once in the water, I didn’t know where to look. Did I stick my head under and sing through my snorkel to try to get the dolphins’ attention? (Yes, this actually works). Did I look above water as they gracefully swam towards shore…and laugh at all of the other people singing through their snorkels and swimming in circles?

Swimmers Looking for Dolphins

Some of the thirteen swimmers on our boat looking for dolphins to swim with.

Since I knew we’d have time to watch the dolphins from the boat later, I chose to keep my head under, occasionally diving down and doing everything I could to convince the dolphins I was the person they wanted to play with. All around me, grey and black shapes spun and splashed, passing me by as I slowly paddled along. The pod was coming back to shore after its early morning feeding expedition. Since they weren’t hunting for their next meal quite yet, many of them were happy to play, even the mothers and babies.

Too soon, the pod had passed us by and the whistle was blowing to call all thirteen swimmers back to the boat. We’d only been in the water for about ten minutes, but this wasn’t the end of our dolphin experience. Four more times the boat went around the pod (at a safe distance) and parked in front of it, putting us in a prime position to swim as the dolphins went past.

Underwater Closeup of a Dolphin #2

The dolphins were going so fast that it was very hard to snap any photos of them!

Once, I got so caught up in a group of dolphins that slowed down for me, swimming at what to them must have felt like a snail’s pace, that I ended up well beyond all of the Dolphin Encounter boats. When the whistle blew, I had to swim as fast as I could for five minutes before I made it back to my own boat!

My most memorable encounter came just as the whistle blew on what I knew was our final swim. As I turned towards the boat, a dolphin suddenly took interest in me and doubled back towards me. She started swimming in a circle, faster and faster as I frantically tried to keep up with her. I was in awe of just how graceful she was — she moved through the water so elegantly yet always kept her eye on me.

After about two minutes, my mask had nearly completely filled with water so I popped up to clear it. I immediately put my head back under, but she was already gone. I was sad to see her go but knew I had to get out anyway; at least my swim had had one hell of a finale!

Dolphins Swimming along the Kaikoura Coast
Jumping Dusky Dolphin

Having learned from my previous dolphin swim where I took off my wetsuit and got seasick in the process, which in turn made me miss all of the dolphin watching, I kept my wetsuit on for the rest of the trip. It kept me reasonably warm, although I would have been even warmer in dry clothes. However, I’m convinced that keeping it on saved me from joining the four miserable people being sick at the back of the boat.

Taking a Leap

A dusky dolphin crashes back into the water after taking a flying leap.

Instead, I got to watch the dolphins’ above-water antics, and wow, were there a lot of them. It seemed like the animals were trying to best each other in the “best flip” category, since nearly everywhere I looked a dolphin was launching himself out of the water. Since the megapod had stayed together, we could see dolphins frolicking from nearly everywhere in the boat. They were entirely too awake for a bit past 7am; that said, I certainly hadn’t been in danger of falling asleep all morning since the dolphins’ enthusiasm for life was very infectious!

The Pod Surrounds Us

The pod surrounds us.

I enjoyed every minute of the show as I sipped hot chocolate and nibbled on ginger biscuits, thinking about how I’d hardly been in New Zealand a week and I’d already gotten the chance to watch the rare Hector’s Dolphin (in Akaroa) and the dusky dolphin at play. It truly was an awe-inspiring experience and one that I’d do again in an instant.

Would you like to go swimming with dolphins or would you prefer watching their antics from the (relative) warmth of the boat?


I went on Dolphin Encounter’s 5.30am experience and highly recommend that, if you get the chance, you do the same. While it seems like a crazy hour of the morning, the fact that the dolphins are usually coming back in from feeding means they are more inclined to play — and they were certainly much more playful than when I went on an 8.30am tour three years earlier.

I also highly recommend that, if you’ve ever been seasick, you take seasick pills before getting on the boat. I took 2 Dramamines and made it through the entire tour. Dolphin Encounter only provides herbal tablets so you’ll need to go to a pharmacy if you want anything stronger.

Tours take around 3.5 hours but can be longer if the dolphins are further away. They’re offered at 8.30am and 12.30pm year round, with the 5.30am tour only available from November to April. This time includes the introductory video, getting prepped with all your gear, and driving to and from the boats at South Bay. It costs $170 for swimmers and $90 for watchers.

The Encounter complex where you meet for tours is located at 96 Esplanade, Kaikoura. Kaikoura is roughly 180km (or a 2.5hr drive) north of Christchurch.

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