Swimming with dolphins is a popular activity in the land of the long white cloud. In fact, there have been no captive dolphins in New Zealand since 2008, so if you want to see them, you have to join them in their natural environment.
While plenty of locations around the country offer dolphin swim experiences, the Marlborough Sounds are a top choice in terms of location.
E-KO TOURS: THE BEST CHOICE FOR SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS
One of the best options for swimming with dolphins in New Zealand is E-Ko tours. Based just beside the harbour in Picton on the north of the South Island, their boats have access to the entire Marlborough Sounds and are committed to driving you on an impressive 100 km circuit in search of a friendly pod – if that’s what it takes. In fact, the outer sounds are where most of the sightings take place, so the chances are high that you’ll get to see a decent proportion of the scenery along the way. Take this as an opportunity to learn about the region from your fantastically knowledgeable captain and commentator.
The sounds themselves are an incredibly beautiful environment for swimming with dolphins, but that’s not the only reason E-Ko tours should be your top choice. They’re also really big on eco-tourism. They won’t let you get in the water with endangered species or when the dolphins are exhibiting behaviours they wouldn’t like you to interfere with, such as feeding or breeding. E-Ko Tours also encourage their staff to volunteer on local conservation projects and even offer their boats to assist with transporting researchers around the Marlborough Sounds.
These sustainable practices make it much more likely that the dolphins will stick around and continue to thrive and interact with tour groups.
DOLPHIN SPECIES IN THE MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS
With sheltered waters and plenty of prey, cetaceans are regularly spotted in the Marlborough Sounds. There are actually five species of dolphin inhabiting the region.
Dusky dolphins are the species you’re most likely to have the chance to swim with. They grow to 1.5 to 2 m in length, are white and grey, and lack a prominent beak. They’re sociable and can often be seen doing flips and acrobatics.
There are about 2000 bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand. Much bigger than the duskies, they can grow to around 4 m in length. You can also get in the water with this species.
Hector’s dolphins are recognisable by their rounded dorsal fins. Only found in New Zealand, they’re one of the rarest and smallest cetaceans in the world. For this reason, E-Ko Tours do not permit you to swim with them, but if they spot any they’ll pull in close by and let you observe them from the boat. They can also sometimes be seen to jump high out of the water.
Despite their name, common dolphins are actually the least common of the three dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds that you’re able to swim with.
Although not sighted very often, orcas (or killer whales) are sometimes present in the Marlborough Sounds, especially in the summer months when they hunt stingrays. This isn’t something to be concerned about. There is no documented incident of a killer whale ever harming a human outside of captivity. Just to be sure, though, E-Ko tours will keep you on the boat if there have been any sightings that day.
SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS: WHAT TO EXPECT
E-Ko tours have a number of vessels and you’ll be assigned to one when you arrive at their office at 8 am. They provide wetsuits, masks and snorkels, and there are plenty of individual changing rooms available. After signing a couple of forms and watching a brief entertaining introductory video, it’s time to head out to the pier.
An advantage of the Marlborough Sounds is that you’re unlikely to get seasick because they’re sheltered. The water is also a few degrees warmer than in the open ocean, with temperatures in summer reaching around 16°C. Having said that, swimming with dolphins can leave you feeling a little chilly, so the E-Ko Tours crew also provide tea, coffee, hot chocolate and cookies for the journey back.
Dolphins use echolocation and their sonar frequencies are four times more powerful than those used in medicine. This means they’ll know you’re there from hundreds of metres away. They also recognise the sounds of each of the boats in the sounds. Sometimes they’ll come over specifically because they know it’s E-Ko Tours and want to play, but sometimes it takes a little more effort. In addition to a spotter with powerful 6-km binoculars on each of the tour boats, there are plenty of other boats in the harbour that have agreed to give E-Ko Tours a heads up if they spot anything of interest.
You can help find them too. If you see a fin, irregular splashing, or a large number of circling large white Australasian gannets diving from a great height, it could indicate there are dolphins in the area. The boat staff will take pleasure in informing you that they’ve had regular sightings of ‘fake dolphins’ too, including wave dolphins, seal dolphins, log dolphins and even bird dolphins, but it’s better to shout out and be wrong than to keep quiet and miss the chance to move closer.
INTERACTING WITH DOLPHINS
Dolphins are intelligent beings and their behaviour is unpredictable. Any number of factors, such as the season, the time of day, the weather, the tide, or the location of prey, may cause them to change location and its possible they’ll leave the sounds altogether. If you do get to meet them, they’re likely to exhibit one of the following three behaviours.
🐬 They swim towards you but are then distracted by something else and change direction. –
🐬 They swim quickly towards you, dodge you, and then continue in the same direction they’d been going. –
🐬 They come over to you and can’t get enough!
If you have a close encounter, don’t chase or try to touch them. You’re in their environment and you should let them dictate the boundaries.
New Zealand fur seals are a common sighting and the E-Ko Tours boats will stop off close to the shore so that you can watch them basking on the rocks and frolicking in the sea. The blue or ‘little’ penguin is the world’s smallest penguin. They come to shore under the cover of darkness and live in underground burrows, but if you’re lucky you might see one bobbing around on the water. The majority of whales in the Marlborough Sounds are humpbacks, but baleen whales are sighted too, and even blue whales are known to hang out in Cook Strait. Common bird species include gannets, shearwaters, oystercatchers, herons and a variety of shag species, while some endemic species like ground-dwelling wekas and kiwis inhabit some of the islands in the Sounds.
MORE ABOUT THE MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS
The Marlborough Sounds are the only true sounds in New Zealand. They were created by river erosion and have a v-shaped profile that reaches an average depth below the surface of 30 to 40 m. Despite their names, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are actually fjords.
The north coast of the South Island is known to have some of the best weather in the country. It’s a popular place for people to retire to and, in fact, there are so many holiday homes that the population of Picton roughly triples in the summer months. Huge houses are scattered along the coast, some with ‘his and hers’ helipads. The wineries in this region are a huge draw for tourists too.
As the boat leaves Picton and heads out into the Marlborough Sounds, you’ll pass the following points of interest.
Waikawa Bay is the second biggest marina in New Zealand after Auckland (the City of Sails). You should be able to see it just minutes after leaving Picton.
The depth of water, tidal flows, water quality, sheltered conditions and temperature of the Marlborough Sounds make them perfect for farming salmon. These farms are easily recognisable by the 3 m high fencing, which is used to keep out seals.
Arapaoa Island was used as a base for whalers until the practice was made illegal in the 1960s. Today, the Department of Conservation employs retired whalers to use their hilltop lookouts to spot whales on their annual migration, and to report on their numbers and behaviours.
BAY OF MANY COVES
The Bay of Many Coves is a popular spot for holiday makers. It’s reasonably remote because it can only be reached by boat or via the Great Charlotte Track.
At many locations in the Marlborough Sounds – and in particular Kumutoto Bay – conservation efforts have been made to eradicate invasive species of pine, which are outcompeting native species and threatening the sounds’ scenic quality and identity. Kiwi bush should have the appearance of broccoli and is necessary to support other species, such as invertebrates, lizards and some of New Zealand’s threatened endemic birds. The story of pine eradication is an interesting one involving the adaptation of methods like shooting poison pellets from low-flying helicopters! To date, they’ve managed to kill around 500,000 pines, but a few million still remain.
WHAT IF YOU DON’T SEE ANY DOLPHINS?
It’s important to remember that dolphins are wild animals and therefore not entirely predictable. That being said, E-Ko Tours do have an excellent track record of sighting them. You have around a 95% chance of seeing dolphins and around an 80% chance of being able to get in the water with them.
These are good odds, but you have to manage your expectations. If you’re one of the unlucky few who doesn’t get to swim, E-Ko tours will refund you NZ$50, bringing your overall fee down from NZ$165 to NZ$115 – roughly the equivalent price of a regular dolphin watching tour. If you don’t see dolphins either, they’ll give you NZ$74 back. You can’t say fairer than that.
GETTING TO PICTON
If you don’t have a car, the best way to travel around the South Island of New Zealand is via InterCity Bus services. Use the tool below to search for a specific journey or click through to their homepage to investigate multi-journey discount passes and a range of tours.