Top Ten Places to See Dolphins in New Zealand

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.

Dolphin 5The 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.

3) Auckland

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A dolphin that was riding our bow wave

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.

4) Tauranga

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.

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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.

Dolphin 27) Kaikoura

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.

8) Akaroa

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.

9) Fiordland

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

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.

Dolphin 3

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The Mount

Like Mount Fujiyama and the River Avon, New Zealand’s Mount Maunganui has a tautological name: it literally means Mount Big Mountain. Officially, it’s supposed to be called Mauao, but no one can say that, so everyone just calls it The Mount.

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It’s not much of a mountain really, more a big hill. It’s quite pretty, sitting there at the end of the peninsula, overlooking Tauranga harbour on one side and the Bay of Plenty on the other. You can be up and down it in less than two hours, and there are different tracks for different levels of fitness. There’s even a track that goes around the base, which makes for a very nice walk indeed, as the waves crashing into the boulders are fascinating.

Mount 3

There are sheep roaming over the Mount, and lots of birds darting through the trees on either side of the paths, but what you go up (and around) it for are the views. On a sunny day, when the pohutukawa are in bloom, you get the green slopes, the red trees, the multicoloured rocks, the golden sand and the crystal-blue sea, not to mention the city stretching along the sandbank.

Mount 6

Two things you must have when walking up the Mount are a hat and a bottle of water. The track can get fairly dusty in summer. Oh, and a camera – the sight of Matakana Island from the top is something you’ll definitely want to take a picture of.

Dolphin 5Mount Maunganui is also the name of the settlement at the foot of the Mount, adjacent to the city of Tauranga. It’s a rather posh place, full of penthouses. It’s pretty much the premiere beach resort of New Zealand. There’s some nice shopping to be done there, and nice eating, and there’s lots of adventurous activities you can book, such as paragliding, jet skiing, kayaking and swimming with dolphins.

What makes Mount Maunganui special is it’s two different types of beaches in one. The Mount is connected to Tauranga by a long, narrow piece of land. On one side is Pilot Bay, the entrance to Tauranga Harbour, where the water is calm and lake-like. It’s great to swim in with small children, or to kayak around in peace. On the other side is a surfing beach. That’s also great to swim in, but you do have to be careful. It’s a lot more lively on the surfing side. Come summer, it’s got heaps of sunbathing locals and tourists. At the base of the Mount, the two beaches are about a minutes’ walk apart from one another.

Mount 2

What’s great is there’s a holiday park right at the bottom of the Mount, with toilets, showers, laundries, kitchens and barbecues. You have book because it’s so popular. I know a family that lives in Tauranga and takes their secondhand campervan to the Mount every year, as if they didn’t live close enough already!

Right next to the campervan park is a collection of salt water hot pools. They’re the only sea water pools in New Zealand, naturally heated. I love going there with my mum. You can get massages there, but we never have. We get massaged enough by the huge jets in the middle pool, and by ‘massaged’ I mean ‘pummelled’. Good for the shoulders, apparently. It’s so nice in the warm water I never want to get out.

Before my family moved to Tauranga, we came on a holiday to Mount Maunganui, but we didn’t get to climb it. It was on fire. Still, we had a good time standing on the beach watching the helicopters scoop up gallons of sea water to throw on the flames.

Mount 8

Kiwi Houses

One of the most notable differences between England and New Zealand is the housing.

I grew up in a small, terraced house in the North of England. The lounge was less than half the size of our lounge now, here in New Zealand, and we had a tiny bathroom that had been partitioned off from the upstairs front room – there were still the remnants of an outdoor toilet, which we used as a shed.

We had little yard, completely concreted over, and a drying green we shared with the rest of the terrace. When we bought a house in New Zealand, it was the first time we’d actually owned our own garden with grass.

Our street in England was a Victorian street. Every house was the same: two-storied and skinny, just wide enough for a big bay window and a front door. There were no grass verges. Cars lined either side of the road, turning it into a one-way street.

And the next street was the same. And the next.

When we moved to New Zealand, I was astounded at the simple fact that, on our street, every house was different. And most of them were single-storied. It was hard to get used to not having stairs.

Every house had a luscious, green garden in front of it, and the pavements had wide borders of grass.

The houses had space in-between them. Returning years later to look at our old house in England, I had definite, unexpected feelings of claustrophobia, and I couldn’t believe how grey the world seemed.

Houses 3

Space is what defines New Zealand housing, the space to build whatever you can dream. There’s a bit of a problem with some older houses in that, since New Zealand is generally quite warm, they weren’t built with proper insulation and heating – hardly any houses here have built-in radiators – and that isn’t so good when it gets damp in winter.

Houses 1

There’s a lot more outdoor living in New Zealand. Decks are a must-have when it comes to kiwi houses, but lots of kiwi families like to do some outdoor living away from the home. Campervans and caravans are very popular, but not as iconic as the kiwi bach.

A bach is a holiday home by a beach. Traditionally, they’re really basic – practically sheds with beds in, built out of second-hand materials – but I recently visited a friend’s ‘bach’ in Coromandel and it was the fanciest place I’ve ever been in, far flasher than any house my family’s owned. I thought retreating to the bach was supposed to be about leaving the modern world behind, along with all of its electronic distractions, so you could get back to nature – well not this place!

I think I prefer holidaying in a campervan. I’m one of those people that needs encouragement to get outdoors, and this bach was so luxurious I didn’t want to leave it. Mind you, the view from the deck was fairly all right.

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Going Bush

When I was a kid, back in Britain, we used to visit Sherwood Forest.

Yes, Sherwood Forest – the remnants of Robin Hood’s mystical domain – a symbol of romantic, English woodland.

Except it wasn’t that great.

There are nicer examples of English woodland, though patches of green seem few and far between in England, especially now: now I know New Zealand and its native bush.

It’s often said that New Zealand is green. This, of course, refers to its environmentally friendly image, but it may as well mean its landscape. There is a LOT of green. New Zealand simply has more unspoilt countryside, more patches of green to choose from than England.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the English woodland. I get nostalgic for those grand, druid-worthy oak trees, cushioned by carpets of bluebells and snowdrops. But the New Zealand bush is something else.

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A view of the bush from inside a cave, Waitomo

The first thing you notice is the tree ferns. In Britain, ferns tend to be low-lying and rather unimpressive. In New Zealand, ferns grow tall everywhere, lining the roads and forest paths, delicate fronds lolling above people’s heads, filtering the sunlight. Some of the fronds are huge – my first few months in New Zealand, I kept expecting to see dinosaurs emerging from the foliage!

If you’re lucky, while you’re walking in the bush you’ll spot a fuzzy, brown coil protruding from the trees, a frond on the verge of unfurling. This is a koru, a Maori symbol of new life. When I arrived in New Zealand, having just stumbled exhausted and terrified off the plane, my dad gave me a koru necklace. I can’t say it made me feel any better at the time, but it was a nice thought.

Tree ferns are so abundant in New Zealand that the ‘silver fern’ is recognisable the world over as the emblem of the All Blacks rugby team. The Maori name for the silver fern tree is ponga, and the undersides of the fronds are, indeed, silver. So striking are they that these fronds can be placed belly up on the murky forest floor to create a gleaming arrow, a beacon to guide the way.

When I returned to New Zealand after going back to England for a few weeks, the sight of tree ferns at the side of the motorway when my dad picked me up from the airport evoked a strong ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling within me – I was definitely back in New Zealand.

Ferns may be the most conspicuous of New Zealand’s native trees, but they aren’t the prettiest. That distinction, I think, has to go to the Pohutukawa tree.

Pohutukawa in bloom

Pohutukawa in bloom

They’re known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree, not only because they bloom around Christmastime – they bloom in a festive explosion of deep, beautiful red. The vision of bejewelled Pohutukawas gathered upon the edge of the golden sand, facing the gleaming waves, is the epitome of the New Zealand summer.

When you ‘go bush’ in New Zealand, you encounter many strange trees, and many more familiar ones, but what truly sets it apart from the English woodland is the atmosphere. It’s temperate rainforest. The air is hushed and humid. Well, hushed when there aren’t any cicadas around. When there are cicadas, it’s a never-ending cacophony of shrill, grating chirps. If crickets are violinists, cicadas are thrash metal guitarists.

A tui

A tui

Thankfully, cicadas aren’t the only creatures that serenade the trees. The tui, for example, is a native New Zealand bird that has to have one of the loveliest songs in the avian world. The males are a treat to look at too, with black feathers that shine with metallic purples and greens, their throats adorned with brilliant, white baubles.

There are endless places you can go bush walking in New Zealand, and most have campgrounds attached to them. Camping is an excellent way to experience the New Zealand bush, as you can base yourself somewhere and relax surrounded by nature, rather than driving ages to get there, walking for a few hours, then driving back. I think campervans beat tents in this situation, because you can have a shower when you finish your walk!

There are strict rules surrounding camping in New Zealand. This isn’t a bad thing, seeing as we don’t want these peaceful, picturesque sites to be ruined, but it does mean that you have to make sure you’re doing things right. There’s plenty of information about New Zealand camping out there and it’s well worth a read.

My absolute favourite place to go bush walking is Karangahake Gorge. Not only is it a breathtaking piece of nature, with its dramatic rock walls, carved by a large, winding river, it is a fascinating piece of history. The paths cross abandoned railway tracks, and tunnels delve into the rock, dark and frightening – seriously, I got scared going too far into one. It’s exciting to come out of a tunnel into daylight and suddenly find yourself looking down at the river far below. You can walk along the side of the river as well and even swim in it in places. There’s a pool with a waterfall and a cave you can climb into – an awesome place to have your lunch.

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Another great place to bush walk is Waitomo, which is where most of the photos in this post come from. However, bush walking is probably the least amazing thing you can do in Waitomo – I’ll post about that another time!

And finally, as the location of my first ever bush walk in New Zealand, the Waitakere Ranges get an honourable mention as a brilliant bush walking destination, but, as I don’t have any photos of it, (I was only ten and didn’t have my own camera yet,) here’s another picture of Waitomo:

I always imagine fairies here.

I always imagine fairies here.

So is the New Zealand bush better than the English woodland? Well there’s more of it, and it doesn’t rain every time you go for a walk in it. And there’s exotic birds and weird trees. But the English woodland can be just as beautiful as the New Zealand bush; just as magical. For me – and, of course, I’m terribly biased – the bush simply isn’t as romantic the woodland. It is, however, wonderfully exciting.

I suppose you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

My Top 10 North Island Day Walks