kaikoura: dolphin encounter
What could possibly be more magical than swimming in the ocean with wild dolphins? We couldn’t think of anything! We decided that the Dolphin Encounter was not just a “to do,” it was a “must do.” Although our first attempt didn’t quite pan out, luck was on our side in the end.
Camping on the Coast
We drove the three hours from Christchurch, anxious to post camp before the sun began to set. We found a free (and fantastic) campsite featured on the CamperMate app. The campsite was a little north of Kaikoura, across some train tracks and RIGHT on the ocean. Free camping on the ocean coast, good lawwwd! We grabbed some hummus, vegetables and crackers and pigged out in the car before making our way to the tent for the night. There were some sand flies, but it wasn’t too bad.
Usually, we get some of the best sleep in the tents. Mother Nature decided she wanted to wake us up to impress us with her wind power. We were shocked our tent stayed up (shout out to Mountain Hardware). The early wake up wasn’t entirely too horrible, we witnessed one of the greatest sunrises of our lives.
We took down the tent and packed up the car. We headed out early to “freshen up” at the public restrooms and for some breakfast at Why Not Café. Nerves and enthusiasm pulsed in our veins and Ryann could barely eat. To get an idea of her excitement, at one time her bedroom was dolphin-themed and her first AOL screen name was actually Dolphinluvr1989. Embarrassing, but true.
Pink Skies in the Morning…
Yes, going back to that oh-so-beautiful sunrise. If you know the famous saying, the pink skies that we admired was not actually a good thing. We arrived at Dolphin Encounter, to find that all trips were cancelled. Okay, so… now what? We re-booked for a week later with hopes of better weather. Until then, we’ll drive north and start our road trip!
A Week Later
The time had come. We had driven around New Zealand and looped back to Kaikoura in record time. We camped in the same exact spot as the week before, this time spoiling ourselves with Subway and chips. The weather forecast was clear skies and high 70s. Please, please let it work this time! If the swim was canceled again, we wouldn’t be able to re-schedule because our flight was the next night. Luck was in our favor because the next morning when we arrived back to Dolphin Encounter, they announced it was a beautiful day for a swim! THANK GOODNESS!
*Dolphin Encounter was absolutely phenomenal with the rebooking and communication. Great customer service!
Preparing for the Encounter
We first had to stand in line to pay for the swims. We read online if you mention a backpacking blog, you get a 10% discount on tickets. We couldn’t then, and still cannot recall the name of the blog but either way, they honored it anyway. Next, we filled out a waiver form, stating we were confident swimmers and the other usual information needed.
After the paperwork was done, we went into a backroom to be fitted with flippers, masks and wetsuits. We tried on our wetsuits in the locker rooms. The wet suits were a little uncomfortable, tight and somewhat smelly- but they’re absolutely the reason we stayed warm in the ocean and Ryann wasn’t afraid of jellyfish.
Once we were semi-comfortable in our new apparel, we sat in a viewing room to watch a video about the company and a PowerPoint presentation on what to expect. We were told that we would probably see one species of dolphin more than any: the Dusky Dolphins. Ryann was more worried about seeing Orcas. We had heard a story from one of our Airbnb hosts that they saw an Orca attack a pod of dolphins when they were on a boat in Kaikoura. Obviously, that resonated more with one of us. But one thing we learned was to make sounds for the dolphins, i.e. squeaks, purrs, clicks and whatever noises prove alluring enough to appeal to the dolphins’ interests.
Remember this when you watch our video.
En Route to the Encounter
After the presentation, we all piled in a bus. We drove for about 10-15 minutes, where half the group was called to aboard a different boat than ours. After we dropped them off, we drove to our boat. We grabbed our backpack and hopped on.
While on the boat, we learned about the different signals to use if we felt distressed, etc. Also, we learned about the boat horn sounds. It was very simple and pretty self-explanatory (swim back when you hear the horn, don’t jump in until you hear the horn).
We sped past some albatross and sea gulls, eyes peeled for dorsal fins. Finally, after about 20 minutes, we met up with the other boat and came across the pod. Wow, they were everywhere. It was mind-boggling seeing so many! We were then ushered to the end of the boat, preparing for our first swim. We looked at each other, sheer excitement was clear. Then, the boat sounded the horn. TIME TO JUMP IN!
We were lucky, we got to do four different swims that day, following the pod. Writing about swimming with friendly, curious and fun-loving wild dolphins is truly a difficult task to describe. We’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins and had thought about those resorts in Mexico or the Caribbean where they are kept behind a net on the resorts. Well, this just ruined that.
The dolphins could have easily avoided us, and yes, some did, but the majority of them swam right up to us, begging to play. Ryann swam with one dolphin in circles for what seemed like minutes. She said that the dolphin and her actually had eye contact the whole time. Devin, unfortunately, had the GoPro and wasn’t as able to swim in circles because of that (keep that in mind, maybe only bring the GoPro on a couple of swims, not all of them!). Also, although the other boat was nearby each time we swam, we did not feel crowded or too close to the other group. If anything, it was great they split the group in two boats. There were enough people to feel comfortable swimming free in the open ocean but not too many to feel packed. It was entertaining hearing everyone else’s calls to the dolphins. Ryann is confident in her high-pitched “eeeee” call, while Devin argues his “brrrrrrr” was more successful. All in all, it was an extraordinary experience that neither of us will ever forget. 100% recommended.
Once the final horn was blown and it was time to say good bye to the dolphins, we were greeted with hot chocolate and ginger snaps. The crew also provided a hot water hose to wash away the salt water and warm up with. We took advantage, over-gratified with everything of the day. Perfect weather, amazing dolphin experiences and now cookies! We changed into warm clothes and enjoyed the boat ride back to shore.
After we boarded the bus and returned back to Dolphin Encounter, we had the option of cleaning up and showering in the locker rooms. We decided to wait until our Airbnb, ate lunch provided by the on-site café and headed back to Christchurch.
Packing for the Encounter
- Change of clothes (don’t forget underwear!)
- GoPro/ Camera (you are allowed to use the selfie stick!)
- Sweater (depending on when you go)