You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dolphin tourism operators in New Zealand. Basically, you get on a boat, sail around a bit until you find dolphins, and hope they’re attracted to your bow wave. They usually are. It’s apparently marvellous fun for them to swim in. Then, if the dolphins don’t have any calves with them, you’re allowed to get in the water. Sometimes the dolphins will come right up to you; sometimes they won’t. Either way, it’s an unforgettable experience. Here’s a list of the top ten places to see dolphins in New Zealand:
The Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is a great place for swimming with dolphins because the water is quite warm compared with the rest of New Zealand. There’s also some pretty scenery around, as opposed to just ocean, such as the imaginatively named Hole in the Rock. The two species of dolphin you’re likely to encounter in the Bay of Islands are the common dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin. Bottlenose dolphins are the stereotypical dolphins, in other words what everyone expects dolphins to look like; common dolphins have yellow patches on their sides. Both species can be really friendly towards humans, but they can also get boisterous and sometimes frighteningly violent, which is why you’re not allowed in with them if they have calves to protect, or seem at all in an odd mood. Also, if you’re extremely lucky, you might encounter some killer whales around the Bay of Islands. (You’re definitely not allowed to swim with those.)
Goat Island is a haven for snorkelers with its clear water and abundance of beautiful, colourful fish. Wading into the shallow surf and having all these vibrant aquatic creatures swimming around your ankles is quite an experience, which is why so many people flock to Goat Island each year. There’s a glass bottom boat ride you can go on, from which you might be lucky enough to see some bottlenose and common dolphins as well.
You can catch a ferry that’ll take you to see the dolphins out in the Hauraki Gulf straight from downtown Auckland. It was on one of these ferries that I saw my first dolphins in New Zealand – my first dolphins that weren’t performing in a tank. And, let me tell you, watching dolphins leaping and diving alongside your boat is way better than watching them leaping and diving through hoops in a tank.
I saw them playing between the twin prows of our catamaran, turning over to surf on their backs and even having sex. (An older woman on our boat was quite delighted with the spectacle of two dolphins having sex until she was informed that both of the dolphins were male.) I don’t think I got in the water that time, but I got as close as I could to the dolphins by dangling my legs over the side of the bow and was delighted when one of them leapt out of the water to tap my foot. (I was ten at the time.)
I saw both common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins that day, but unfortunately no orca. I was, however, treated to the fantastic sight of a flock of gannets dive-bombing a school of fish that had been driven to the surface by a pod of dolphins, which I’ve talked about in my article about New Zealand wildlife.
There are yet more dolphin tour companies operating from Tauranga, which, again, offer the opportunity to see common and bottlenose dolphins, along with killer whales and occasionally even something as magnificent as a baleen whale. These tours take you out past Mount Maunganui into the Bay of Plenty. I remember finding the scenery almost as interesting as the dolphins.
But you don’t necessarily have to book an expensive dolphin tour to be amazed. Every now and then, a pod of orca will come right into Tauranga Harbour for a short stay, mainly to hunt stingrays in the shallow water, which are apparently like killer whale confectioneries. When this happens, you can get up close to the orca in a kayak, or on a jet ski, or just watch from the shore.
The west coast of the North Island
Off the west coast of the North Island is the only place in the world you’ll find the critically endangered Maui dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world. It has a round, black dorsal fin and is really cute. Unfortunately, the chances of you seeing one are so small that if you do see one you have to inform the Department of Conservation. There are only about fifty-five left.
Maui dolphins like to swim around in shallow water close to shore, which means they’re in danger of being caught in fishing nets or being hit by boats. I’ve never seen a Maui dolphin, but I have seen Hector’s dolphins, of which Maui dolphins are a subspecies. Hector’s dolphins can only be seen around the South Island, which is where we are headed next.
The Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds are at the top of the South Island and are beautiful to cruise around even without the dolphins. They’re lovely and peaceful to kayak on too. The dolphin species around there include bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, orca, the rare Hector’s dolphins and the more common dusky dolphins. There’s a good chance you’ll see dolphins if you do the ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton and that’s not even an official dolphin tour.
As we travel down the South Island we reach Kaikoura, a town famous for its whale watching. Here, you can see sperm whales, humpback whales and even sometimes a blue whale! Of course, you can swim with dolphins as well. There are common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, killer whales and the rather confusingly named southern right whale dolphins, the only dolphins without dorsal fins.
Akaroa is the place to see Hector’s dolphins, though it’s a charming settlement in itself. Conveniently located near Christchurch, it was originally settled by French immigrants so, of course, you get the whole culture of fancy food and wine, but, more importantly, Akaroa is the only place in the world where you can swim commercially with Hector’s dolphins. They look the same as Maui dolphins, except they’re a little bigger. This was certainly the most special dolphin experience I’ve had in New Zealand.
So our trip continues on from Akaroa, down the east coast of the South Island and across to Fiordland, which is one of the most stunning places on earth. I mean just… wow. It’s at the bottom of the South Island and has sounds like Marlborough at the top, but they’re somehow more dramatic. You can see the dolphins if you go for a cruise on Doubtful Sound, or Milford Sound, but there’s only one species, the bottlenoses. You probably won’t want to swim with them, though. Aside from the water being dark, (which means it’s like a mirror, reflecting the breathtaking hills, waterfalls and mountains above,) it’s freezing.
About as far south as you can get without popping over to Stewart Island, Porpoise Bay has a resident population of Hector’s dolphins, which you can see just by standing on the beach. It’s a good place for surfing, but, I imagine, would be very cold, even in summer. Still, I suppose the risk of hypothermia would be worth it if a posse of dolphins approached you to play, which they reportedly do. It’s important to let them approach you, though, not the other way around.
So as you can see, there are plenty of places to choose from if you want to encounter dolphins in New Zealand. The South Island has a greater variety of dolphin species, but the North Island is warmer for swimming with them.
List compiled by Abigail Simpson