First up, Andrew Westbrook took the plunge with the area’s dolphins, although we didn’t expect him to get quite so friendly…
Anyone who thinks they’re good in the water is kidding themselves. Quick, agile, strong? Nope, nope and nope. You obviously haven’t been in the wet stuffwith a real swimmer.
This revelation struck me while I was doing my best impression of a dolphin. Bear with me now. This had nothing to do with bizarre fetishes and wasn’t even anything to do with a new rule in Ring of Fire. I was swimming with dolphins off Kaikoura. Dolphins are clever creatures you see and generally have far better things to do than hang out with us humans. Well, they’ve got a lot of swimming, eating fish and hooking up to do anyway.
But luckily, it seems they’re a sucker for a clown. “If you want the dolphins to stay real close,” we were told, as we waited excitedly on our boat, swaying in the deep waters just off the South Island’s eastern coast, “then you’ve got to keep them entertained.” And apparently the way to entertain adolphin is to try and move and sound like one, while keeping eye contact with it. Fair enough. So in we eagerly jump, determined to pull off some Oscar-winning dolphin performances. But like a star-struck newbie whose forgotten their lines, it’s hard to know how to react when you first spot the bopping noses of the duskys racing through the water towards you.
Thanks mainly to the sudden drop-off in depth to about 1.5km off the coast of Kaikoura, the area is blessed with a huge array of wildlife, part of which is the large population of duskys, a highly sociable and acrobatic black and white dolphin that only grows to about 6ft long. As a result, swimming with dolphins off Kaikoura is not like doing it almost anywhere else, where every now and then you might spot a couple. In Kaikoura, there’s more likely to be hundreds,with you right in the middle of them.
Our pod, it turns out, is a medium sized one of about 300 dolphins. A mere 300!
And so a few dozen have already belted past me with little more than a cheeky grin by way of a hello, before the stunned amazement wears off and I get to work. I spin and circle, twist and turn, all the time squeaking, squawking and singing like the latest admission to a nuthouse. Suddenly I realise it’s working.
Below me and around me I’ve got a new friend. As if from nowhere, one of the dolphins has stopped for a closer look, circling with me (except much faster and more elegantly of course), while staring deep into my eyes the whole time. Keeping up with my new buddy is exhausting and as soon as I quit for a few seconds, he’s off, but it’s a strangely personal experience.
Once we’ve all, er, popped our dolphin cherry so to speak, we can’t get enough of it. God knows what we must look like from the boat, or indeed to the dolphins, but all sense of shame is rapidly flung from the water as time and time again we dive into our dolphin impressions with Brando-esque dedication.
Each time we make a new flippered friend we share a few seconds of body writhing and high-pitched squeals of pleasure. The dolphins always disappeared before we got a chance to ask, but hey, it was good for us.
The damage & the details:
A dolphin swim with Dolphin Encounter
(Freephone: 0800 733 365, www.dolphinencounter.co.nz) costs $165.
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 (did you know 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 that needs eating”.
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. Vanessa, 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 is 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 dorkish, 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.
The damage & the details:
Tours with Seal Swim Kaikoura (Freephone: 0800 732 579 or visit www.sealswimkaikoura.co.nz) cost from $70