I woke up excited. In only a few hours, I would be swimming with the world’s smallest and most endangered ocean dolphin — the Hector’s dolphin. Even the prospect of having to swim in 13-degree water didn’t daunt me…well, at least not too much.
Obviously, since the water in Akaroa Harbour couldn’t be considered warm even in mid-summer, Black Cat Cruises is prepared for cold water. In the briefing room, we were handed 5mm thick wetsuits. It could have been worse — apparently in mid-winter, everyone wears warm clothing and a drysuit. Ack!
The day we made our way in was very similar to yesterday’s — in a word, perfect. The water wasn’t quite the glass it was at 7am, but it was close. There was hardly any wind and not a cloud in the sky, which I hoped meant the bay would be reasonably smooth. Also, very importantly, there were no severe seasickness warnings due to swell like in Kaikoura. I still had motion sickness wristbands on just in case!
We were still well within the harbour when we came across the first pod of dolphins. Unlike the dusky dolphins of Kaikoura, which we saw in a pod of 200, Hector’s dolphins live in much smaller pods that are very changeable. The dolphins do not have an allegiance to any one pod so they come and go as they please. This pod, however, wasn’t very interested in us. They briefly investigated the boat and then were on their way, possibly to feed.
The next pod seemed much more excited to see us. We sped the boat up a bit to see if the six of them would follow, and sure enough, they started surfing our bow wave. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone, diving down into the cloudy water of the harbour.
Oh well, we thought. Laura, our very friendly and knowledgeable guide, thought that if we went just outside the harbour we might find a pod that usually hangs out there so we pointed the boat towards the Pacific. I was actually very happy that we went for a look out there because it was an area that we didn’t explore on the Akaroa Jet yesterday.
Outside of the harbour, the Banks Peninsula is even more rugged and spectacular than within it. The basalt rocks from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago drop off in sheer cliffs to the ocean below. Within the rocks, we could see layers that marked the different eruptions.
Sadly, we didn’t find any dolphins there, so we headed back into the harbour hoping that the dolphins would be a bit more playful this time. Things were looking promising when we came upon a very large pod that had at least ten dolphins in it…but when they got closer, we found that many of those dolphins were actually calves that were still feeding from their mothers. The NZ government requires that the dolphins are left alone if they have calves that are under a certain age, so this meant swimming was a no-go.
The calves were very cute — and so tiny, given how small a fully grown Hector’s dolphin is — and it was great to be able to see them because apparently sightings are reasonably rare. They made up for all the interest that the other dolphins hadn’t shown in us, because they followed us for quite a while. This meant that we got quite a bit of time to watch them, but any other pods we found would also be a no-go because the calves were still with us.
I knew we’d failed when Laura got out the hot chocolate, usually reserved for shivering swimmers, and offered some to me. She nodded sadly when I asked if this meant we weren’t going to swim with dolphins today. I was very sad that it hadn’t happened, but at the same time, I knew it was a risk when we went out. The dolphins are completely wild, so nothing can be guaranteed.
We did get a few consolation prizes (aside from getting to watch so many dolphins from onboard). A little head peeked out of the water and was identified as a little penguin, and we spotted a fur seal on the rocks despite his best attempts to blend in with his surroundings.
So was I sad that I didn’t get to actually swim with the dolphins? Definitely. Do I want to come back and have another try? Absolutely. However, I still got to enjoy an amazing day on Akaroa Harbour and I was lucky enough to see a lot of wildlife that can only be seen in a few small areas around the world.
Black Cat Cruises are based in the blue building on the Akaroa main wharf. In the summer they offer up to 16 cruises per day, in shoulder season they offer up to 8 cruises per day, and in the winter they offer one cruise per day. If you do not see any dolphins on your tour, you receive an $80 refund; if you see dolphins but do not get to swim with them (as happened to me), you get a $50 refund.