I’ve travelled far and wide hoping to have the chance to swim with dolphins, or even catch a glimpse of them chasing along the side of a boat.
In Costa Rica a few years ago, I took a trip to Corcovado National Park – a place once described by National Geographic as the most ecologically intense place on earth. Our guide told us we had a strong chance of spotting dolphins as we navigated the peninsular coast line. No such luck.
Last year in Bolivia, I risked life and limb on an 18-hour jeep journey along one of the world’s most dangerous roads to see the wildlife of the Amazon. At a point in the river notorious for pink dolphins, we saw one or two fins appear briefly, but as soon as I lowered myself into the alligator and piranha-infested waters, they scarpered.
I could go on with numerous other examples, but I think you get the picture.
When I was planning my tour of New Zealand, one particular experience kept presenting itself as an unmissable opportunity – swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura. Pretty much every blog I read on the country’s highlights told me I had to do it.
Not one to resign myself to defeat, I altered my planned route to take in Kaikoura so that I could tick swimming with dolphins off my bucket list once and for all.
I was all booked in with Dolphin Encounter and set my alarm for early the next morning in anticipation of finally living the dream. Not even the prospect of bobbing around in the freezing winter ocean could dim my excitement.
That night, a gale blew so strong I was in fear that the walls of my hostel dorm might fall down around me! By morning, there were uprooted trees and overturned lorries on the road outside. With a sinking feeling, I strolled around the corner to the Dolphin Encounter office.
Sure enough, despite the winds having died down, the ocean looking surprisingly calm, and a rainbow appearing over the town, I was told that conditions were too dangerous to take a boat out.
And the next day? Conditions were perfect apparently, but was there a dolphin to be found? Not one. They’d all gone AWOL.
Sadly, I had to move on and continue my journey south to Christchurch without having seen a single dolphin. But did I have any regrets about stopping in Kaikoura? Not at all. It’s one of the most beautiful places I visited in New Zealand.
During my stay, I hiked around the peninsular and visited an amazing spot up the coast called Ohau where seals leave their pups to play in the forest while they hunt for fish in the sea. It had to be one of the most unique and interactive wildlife experiences I’ve had.
My advice to anyone debating whether or not a stay in Kaikoura is worthwhile would be to book yourself in for a night or two. The whole place is so charming, you’re unlikely to regret it, even if your whale or dolphin trip is cancelled for unavoidable reasons.
At worst, you will have a relaxing time wandering through beautiful scenery, watching the waves crash on the beach and getting tickled by the whiskers of a curious seal pup. With any luck you could be bobbing in the ocean, with a pod of 400 plus dolphins swimming dizzily in circles around you.
Getting to Kaikoura
Intercity Buses provide services to Kaikoura from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Picton (2 hours); Christchurch (3 hours); Nelson (5 hours). Further transfers are available from these locations. See the Intercity website for a full list of their services and bus pass options.
Where to stay
I stayed at Albatross Backpackers and it was fantastic. Everyone I met there was staying longer than they’d originally intended. It’s a great place to meet other travellers and the art corner and musical instruments ensure that people interact. They cooked everyone a meal on my first night and I met loads of people to go on day trips with. Interestingly, my dad even recommended it after visiting Kaikoura last year, which just goes to show it appeals to all kinds!