I live in a country surrounded by dolphins. Tourists choose New Zealand just for the opportunity to swim with them. Since we moved here, my family’s encountered many species of dolphins in different places. Here are the top ten places to see dolphins in New Zealand, starting from the top of the country and travelling down:
1) The Bay of Islands
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dolphin tourism operators in New Zealand, and the Bay of Islands is no exception. You go out on a ferry, sail around a bit until you find dolphins, and hope they’re attracted to your bow wave. They usually are. It’s apparently marvellous fun for them to swim in. Then, if the dolphins don’t have any calves with them, you’re allowed to get in the water. Sometimes the dolphins will come right up to you, sometimes they won’t.
The Bay of Islands is a great place for swimming with dolphins because the water is quite warm compared to the rest of the country, and because there’s some pretty scenery around, instead of just ocean, such as the imaginatively named Hole in the Rock.
The two species of dolphins you’re likely to encounter in the Bay of Islands are the common dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin. The bottlenoses are the stereotype of what everyone expects dolphins to look like; the common dolphins have yellow patches on their sides. Both species can be really friendly towards humans, but they can also get boisterous and downright violent, which is why you’re not allowed in with them if they have calves to protect, or seem in a slightly odd mood.
Also, if you’re extremely lucky, you might see some killer whales. (You’re not allowed to swim with those.)
2) Goat Island
Goat Island is a haven for snorkelers, with its clear water and abundance of beautiful, colourful fish. For most people, wading into the shallow surf and having all these vibrant aquatic creatures swimming around your ankles is a wonderful experience, which is why so many people flock to Goat Island each year. Unfortunately for me, I’m scared of fish.
When I was at Goat Island, swimming around trying to avoid the fish because the beach was far too hot to stand on, a sudden strong wave knocked me under and trapped me in a bed of seaweed, and a whole load of fish slammed into me, flapping and wriggling on my skin. I tried to stand up to get my head above water, but the drag and the seaweed stopped me. I panicked. For one very short moment, I thought I’d drown, but I got free and ran back to the scorching sand.
I think that’s where my icthyophobia started.
Anyway, you can see bottlenose and common dolphins at Goat Island as well. So I guess if you’re not scared of fish and want to get close to dolphins while snorkelling in clear water… great.
You can get a ferry that’ll take you to see the dolphins out in the Hauraki Gulf straight from downtown Auckland. This is where we saw our first dolphins in New Zealand – where I saw my first dolphin that wasn’t performing in a tank. And watching them leaping and diving alongside the boat was better than watching them leaping and diving through hoops. I saw them playing between the twin prows of our catamaran, turning over to surf on their backs and even having sex. Gay sex, at that. Yup, I’ve witnessed gay dolphin sex.
I don’t think I got in the water that time, but I got as close as I could to the dolphins by dangling my legs over the side of the bow. I was delighted when one of them tapped my foot.
We saw both common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins that day, but unfortunately no orca. We did, however, get a fantastic show of gannets working with a pod of dolphins to hunt fish, which I’ve talked about elsewhere on this blog, in my article about New Zealand wildlife, in which I also relate my rather, err, traumatising ‘swimming with dolphins’ experience… Moving on.
There are yet more dolphin tour companies operating from Tauranga, which, again, offer the opportunity to see common and bottlenose dolphins, along with killer whales, and occasionally even something as magnificent as a baleen whale. These tours take you out past Mount Maunganui into the Bay of Plenty. I remember I found the scenery almost as interesting as the dolphins themselves. For example, some way beyond the Mount there’s this huge, tiara-shaped rock formation rising out of the sea like Ursula at the end of The Little Mermaid – I really enjoyed sailing by that.
But you don’t necessarily have to book an expensive dolphin tour to be amazed. Every now and then, a pod of orca will come right into Tauranga Harbour for a short stay, mainly to hunt stingrays in the shallow water, which are apparently like killer whale confectioneries. When this happens, you can get up close to the orca in a kayak, or on a jet ski, or just watch from the shore. Despite living in Tauranga when I’m not in Auckland, I’ve never been lucky enough to experience this. It’s really annoying.
5) The west coast of the North Island
Off the west coast of the North Island is the only place in the world you’ll find the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world. It has a round, black dorsal fin and is really cute. Unfortunately, the chances of you seeing one are so small that if you do see one you have to inform the Department of Conservation. There are less than eighty left.
Maui’s dolphins like to swim around in shallow water close to shore, which means they’re in danger of being caught in fishing nets or being hit by boats. I’ve never seen a Maui’s dolphin, but I have seen Hector’s dolphins, of which Maui’s dolphins are a subspecies. Hector’s dolphins can only be seen around the South Island, which is where we are headed next.
6) The Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds are at the top of the South Island and are beautiful to cruise around even without the dolphins. Along with the expected bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and orca, from Picton you can see the rare Hector’s dolphins and the more common dusky dolphins. In fact, you might see dolphins on the ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton anyway.
The waters of the sounds are nice and peaceful, absolutely lovely for swimming in, and relaxing to kayak on.
As we travel round the South Island we reach Kaikoura, a town famous for its whale watching. Here, you can see sperm whales, humpback whales and even sometimes a blue whale! Of course, you can swim with some dolphins as well. There are common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, killer whales and the rather confusingly named southern right whale dolphins, the only dolphins without dorsal fins.
There does seem to be a greater variety of dolphin species hanging around the South Island than the North.
Akaroa is the place to see Hector’s dolphins, though it’s a charming village in itself. Conveniently located near Christchurch, it was originally settled by French immigrants so, of course, you get the whole culture of fancy food and wine. Although, if I remember rightly, when my family visited Akaroa in our New Zealand campervan rental we ended up going to a Thai restaurant. What a waste.
We definitely, however, took advantage of the dolphins. Akaroa is the only place in the world where you can swim commercially with Hector’s dolphins. They look the same as Maui’s dolphins, which I described earlier, small and sweet. It was certainly the most special dolphin experience I’ve had in New Zealand.
So our New Zealand campervan trip continued on from Akaroa, down the east coast of the South Island and across to Fiordland, which is one of the most stunning places on earth. I mean just… wow. It’s at the bottom of the South Island and has sounds like Marlborough at the top, but they’re somehow more dramatic, and there are dolphins in them too. You can see the dolphins if you go for a cruise on Doubtful Sound, or Milford Sound, but there’s only one species, the bottlenoses. You probably wouldn’t want to swim with them either. Aside from the water being dark, (which means it’s like a mirror, reflecting the breathtaking hills, waterfalls and mountains above,) it’s freezing.
10) Porpoise Bay
Unfortunately, we didn’t drive this far south, but I kinda wish we had. Porpoise Bay has a resident population of Hector’s dolphins, which you can see just by standing on the beach. It’s a good place for surfing, but, I imagine, would be very cold, even in summer. Still, I suppose the risk of hypothermia would be worth it if a posse of dolphins approached you to play, which they reportedly do. It’s important to let them approach you, though, not the other way around.
So there are plenty of places to choose from if you want to encounter dolphins in New Zealand. The South Island has a greater variety of dolphin species, but the North Island is warmer for swimming with them. Either way, it’s an unforgettable experience.