The alarm sounds at 4.30am and I sip too-hot tea in an empty hostel lounge. The curtains are still closed, and the silence is muffled. It’s that time in the morning that makes me feel like I’m trespassing, no matter where I am.
I walk down Kaikoura’s high street with the stars still clear and the sky a ladder of darkening blue. By 5.30, I’m sitting in a wetsuit, clutching my flippers and watching a Health & Safety video that looks like it was made in the 80s by a graphic designer’s developmentally-impaired dog.
At 6, our small boat is bouncing off the crests of waves as it traverses South Bay on its way out into the Pacific Ocean. A driver and a guide accompany 14 swimmers as we search for a pod of dolphins willing to humour us. It doesn’t take long for the famously-acrobatic dusky dolphins to appear, spinning and somersaulting on the horizon, framed against the rising sun. The guide estimates it’s a pod of about 300.
Some of them keep their difference but many swim in close, diving under the hull and keeping pace with our boat like a good-natured parent pretending to race their child. It’s almost a relief that they’re too fast to photograph properly: forget the perfect picture and stay in the moment. This is the open ocean and the dolphins are wild. You can’t predict how they’re going to behave and their interest in humans is extremely variable. We’re lucky: today they seem thrilled to see us.
We’re all held in rapt attention, and then suddenly we’re being asked to put on our flippers and our rubber helmets. Goggles and snorkels affixed, we slip into the icy ocean. The first immersion takes our breath away, and it’s fortunate that the wetsuits are buoyant enough to remove the risk of being submerged.
Once in the water, it actually is as magical an experience as one would expect from its perpetual presence on bucket lists. We’ve already been sternly warned that dolphins are not there to entertain us, but it certainly feels like they are. They jump and flip and swim inquisitively by our side, and just when we think we’ve lost them, a whole group rushes beneath us, pausing briefly to acknowledge our presence.
We can attract the dolphins to us by blowing noises out of our snorkels, and the sea is alive with the sound of European tourists making awful cetacean impressions. Surprisingly it works, and I gain a 5-minute friend, the two of us circling around each other in what could be mistaken for an inter-species mating ritual. (I Skyped my old IntoUniversity team a few days before, and they were keen to tell me that dolphins have been known to attempt to rape humans. I add this fact without comment.)
It’s a warm, expansive dawn, and there’s an almost tangible spiritualism to swimming with these gorgeous, intelligent animals. What makes this an experience that so many desire? I’d conjecture it’s almost primal: turn your back on the boat and you’re a creature of the sea, welcomed by your fellow mammals and liberated to roam the wild, unmapped waters for all your days.
Oh, I throw up on the way back from a sudden onset of seasickness. But whatever.
Attempts at taking photos of dolphins