A little stunned, I shot her a look that I’m confident would have crossed the language barrier. But she carried on oblivious, happily squealing away and paddling straight past me. There have been many odd and increasingly bizarre things that have happened to me on my travels, but this was definitely up there with the best of them.
I’d been drawn to Kaikoura by my other half – a vegetarian hippy who’s animal-loving obsession meant our road map had taken on a mildly Se7en-esque vibe. Numerous crude animal drawings encircled in erratic red felt-tip dotted the landscape, creating a veritable animal hit-list (of the spectator variety).
Just a couple of hours north of Christchurch, the manic red scribble over Kaikoura meant there was little chance I’d end up escaping a trip to New Zealand’s best opportunity to see dolphins, whales, albatrosses and seals in their natural habitat.
Keeping my manly bravado in check was proving difficult though, and the prospect of swimming with dolphins was causing a squeaky. girl-like glee to bubble under the surface.
I (see a) pod Pre-Bavarian flipper slap, I’d sat in an orientation meeting that had set me right on the nature of the dusky dolphins frequenting the shores.
Good natured and highly sociable, they were drawn to the area for the same reason as the other wildlife. With an oceanic valley almost 1km deep, Kaikoura’s natural currents create upward swells that propel the nutrients usually found on the ocean floor to the top, laying out a communal aquatic smorgasbord that everyone can enjoy.
Concluding the orientation, our guide leant over with sober eyes and imparted the most important bit of information: “If you want them to take interest, act dolphin-y. Swim and squeak like a dolphin, and try and make eye contact.”
While I toyed with the idea that too much sea water had quite clearly gone to her head, I kept it in mind and headed out. On the boat ride out there, I was able to appreciate why both tourists and animals flock to the area.
With the boat coasting over crystal clear, icy blue waters and the winter air producing snow-capped mountain views of unparalleled clarity, I sat back with the sun on my face and fully enjoyed the downtime. That is, until we’d been sailing 25 minutes with nary a peep of a blowhole.
Our skipper finally yelled the (wallet) relieving cry of “dolphins sighted” and we raced to the side of the boat. A pod of roughly 300 dolphins could be seen splashing away in a reverie of acrobatic fervour. It was magnificent.
More than a little eager, I attached my snorkel and flopped out into the ocean. Any worries I’d had of not seeing a dolphin had instantly been replaced by the frightening thought that I’d end up kicking one in the face. They were absolutely everywhere.
Darting around me yet forever staying just out of reach, it felt like I’d been dropped into an underwater whirlwind. Armed with an education at the hands of David Attenborough and the BBC, my mind began to shuffle through a series of encyclopaedic flashcards in the hope of giving me an edge.
Just what the hell do I know about dolphins? Let’s see. Friendly to humans. Enjoy sex just for the hell of it. Prone to gang rape. Can swim whilst asleep. Woah woah woah. Back up there brain. Gang rape?! Better not act too dolphin-y then.
Still, I’m nothing if not adventurous (or foolhardy, I get them confused) and slowly swimming into the flipper tornado, I began to find my feet. I eventually locked eyes with one swimming past (admittedly a bulging, stalker-kind of eye contact) and was amazed by the seemingly human emotion that stared back.
It was phenomenal. Ball-eyeing me with incredible intensity, I began to swim to the right in a bid to keep up. Cautious I wasn’t giving him too much of the eye (tabloid headlines of dolphin/backpacker gangbang still at the forefront of my thoughts), I held my own and saw the snap moment where interest changed to mischievousness.
I (see a) Pod
Steadily building up speed, Ecco (as I liked to call him) was toying with me, circling around me ever faster as my rather pathetic limbs struggled to keep up. As the dizziness began to overwhelm me, he gave me one last wink and spiralled beneath my feet into the depths of the ocean.
With Ecco well and truly bored with my company, I was left to try out my garbled underwater voice to attract others. A random combination of high pitch squeaks only seemed to succeed in driving them away, so changing tact, I thought I’d sing something harmonious. Melodic.
So off I went alternately switching between squeaking the Muppets and Friends theme tunes through my snorkel. Both seemed appropriate. By the time the captain’s boat-horn blasted, I’d started to feel like a cat in a washing machine – soggy, bewildered and spinning around but ever so perversely loving it.
The view from above the water was just as impressive. Witnessing hundreds of dolphins leaping, somersaulting and spinning in perfect aerial synchronicity was astounding.
Even without the threat of dolphin violation, it was one of the most exciting and awe-inspiring moments of my trip, and I didn’t even have to rely on my proposed Bavarian-kicking retribution to leave me feeling satisfied.
It’s quite obvious that after five minutes she finds me boring. This is not a new sensation. Anyone who’s talked to me without sharing an equal enthusiasm for Arsène Wenger/Morrissey/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (he even invented the life-jacket), has felt the same. And, come to think of it, last time I phoned home my mum said something about there being “a yogurt in the fridge needs eating”.
Sealing the Deal
So I’m used to the yawns. But when it’s a seal, it’s something else. I mean, I hadn’t even mentioned that Doyle’s second wife was related to Rob Roy… After getting wetsuited up, a handful of us had edged out into the water, towards a seal colony on a rock outcrop a few minutes from town. Venessa, our guide, had advised us to try and swim alongside them, rather than at them.
Now New Zealand fur seals are lazy gits. They just lounge around all day, occasionally sliding into the wet stuff to cool off and frolic around. So they’re keen on a bit of entertainment. Luckily, I look pretty entertaining in a wetsuit. It didn’t take long before a shape appeared in the water next to me.
The seal was about my height, but considerably rounder, with large, limpid, emotional eyes – almost like they’ve seen the future and it was full of sorrow. I swam alongside her (I don’t actually know if she was a she – we didn’t get that intimate), nervous about getting too close.
But she’d seen these dawkish, slow-swimming animals with their bright-coloured feet before and didn’t hang around for long. Then three youngsters darted over. They were more inquisitive, coming to within a metre, rolling languidly underneath me, cruising carelessly along, then playfighting with each other.
I tagged along like a 15-year-old following an older brother and his mates to the pub for the first time. It was utterly wonderful to feel temporarily accepted by such fun-loving furry things. Over the next hour I had many more interactions like this. Many young fur seals would come over, check me out, play for a bit then carry on.
The hour in the water was one of the most memorable in my three months on the South Island.