Hector's dolphins. © George Karbus Photography

Adventure time: swimming with dolphins in Akaroa

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In Akaroa you can have the rare and remarkable experience of getting up close to the world’s smallest dolphin. 

Hector’s dolphins are some of the resident marine mammals in Akaroa harbour, alongside curious kekenō – New Zealand fur seals. There are great opportunities to spot these small dolphins from the many boat tours that operate in the harbour, but the best way to get a real appreciation for them is from in the water. 

With their signature rounded dorsal fins, Hector’s dolphins are no more than 1.4 metres long, with males only reaching 1.2 metres. Babies are about the size of a rugby ball.

While considered rare due to low overall numbers, the Akaroa population is thriving, with an estimated 3,500 dolphins living around the harbour and neighbouring bays. 

We set off from the Akaroa wharf on a crisp autumn morning, though clad in thick neoprene from neck to toes we’re toasty-warm and comfortable. Water temperatures in Akaroa harbour vary from 17ºC in summer through to a brisk 8ºC in winter, but with the sturdy 5mm-thick wetsuits, I’m glad we’re not doing this in the summer heat. 

Swimming with dolphins

Dolphin encounter. © Blackcat Cruises

We don’t have to head far from the harbour mouth before we spot small dark fins amongst the waves. The crew checks the pod for suitability – the dolphins have to be in the right mood, engaging with the boat or riding our bow wave to show that they’re keen to play. We all scurry to the front of the boat and see three sleek creatures just below the surface. That’s our cue. 

At the stern of the boat, we clamber down the ladders into deep teal water as waves suck and spill, frothy and white over the launch platform. I gasp as cold water seeps into the gaps of my wetsuit, shivering down the back of my neck, but it doesn’t take long until my body warms it back to a pleasant temperature. The wetsuits are so thick and buoyant it’s difficult to keep upright in the water – my feet keep shooting to the surface. But at least there’s virtually no effort required to stay afloat. 

Today the dolphins seem to be teasing us. Whenever we’re on board the boat they swim right alongside, leaping and splashing in the waves, but as soon as we rush, dripping to the stern and get into the water, they disappear. 

“Sing,” the crew tells us, “the vibrations attract them. They’re particularly fond of Queen.” Our group exchanges dubious looks, but we chortle and laugh and whoop loudly as we slide up and down the liquid hills and valleys. 

Then, dark shapes flicker under our bootie-clad feet to pop up next to the boat, circling around and slipping in between our group.

“Oh wow!” we exclaim. “Hi guys!” One dolphin swims within arm’s length, watching us curiously. We don’t try to touch them though – a dolphin’s skin is incredibly sensitive, a bit like the inside of an eyelid, so even the lightest brush of a hand can hurt them. 

Dolphin swim

Getting up close to the Hector's dolphin. © Blackcat Cruises

We’re all grinning at this close encounter – a wild animal that seems almost as intrigued by us. 

Another dolphin-spotting cruise pulls up alongside and the passengers on board watch enviously, snapping pictures as the pod circles around us.

Back on board, we sip hot chocolate and crunch ginger nuts with salty, prune-like hands as the boat heads back to shore, hearts full and happy from the true once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

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