Friday, May 19, 2006

Dusky Dawn

We heard rave reviews about this activity. Well, our guidebook mentioned rave
reviews, and we talked to some people who had talked to some other people. Hmm. This is often the way the reviews come in, and sometimes there is disappointment. But this time, there was NO disappointment!

Possibly the highlight of our trip to New Zealand was the "Dolphin Encounter" in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Here, on the north end of the east side of the south island (got that?), there is a very deep canyon system in the ocean, and it is very unique that in Kaikoura this canyon system comes very close to the shore of the land. Because of the deep water, a large amount of plankton and other marine life comes up nearer the surface than it normally would, which in turn brings the animals that feed on this marine life up.

This means that whales and dolphins in particular are easily spotted here, and in fact kaikoura is a world famous whale-watching destination. However, we had heard about a little more intimate experience, swimming "with" the dolphins.~> read more (with photos)

  We were very fortunate to have great weather for our swim day, which is by no means guaranteed.

The day of our swim, we were requested to show up to Dolphin Encounter headquarters at 5:30 am. This building is right along the waterfront, but at 5:30 it was totally dark (just like the sky!), but we saw a mass of people huddled outside the building. Soon, the building opened up and we checked in. We were then sized up for masks, snorkels, fins, and thick 2-piece wetsuits for the cold water (comparable to the oregon coast). Then, we watched a video explaining that we might not see anything, where to find the life vests on the boat we hadn't yet laid eyes on, and that when we are in the water we should squeak madly into our snorkels and possibly dive down into the cold cold water. Quite mistifying, really.

We were bussed to the boat and climbed on. As we steamed on to where the dolphins were presumably located, the sunrise behind the land to the back of the boat took on amazing fiery proportions (see photo). The weather was calm, and we knew it was going to be a good day one way or another.

The Dolphin Encounter people have a specific process figured out. First, the "swimmers" (that's us) get suited up in our wetsuits, fins, masks, and snorkels. Then, the captain finds a pod of 300-500 dolphins, which are easy to see once you're there from the fins on the surface, but I don't know how they find the pod in the first place. Once tight groups of fins are seen totally surrounding the boat, the captain rings the buzzer, which reminds me of this horn blast they used in swim competitions I was in as a kid after they phased out the cap gun. Very loud, sharp sound, and also meant to signal that you should dive into the water! Picture two benches the whole width of a large boat, each level packed with snorkeled and finned swimmers diving into the water!!

However, we were advised to dive smoothly and quietly (good luck with all that gear), so that we didn't scare the dolphins away. Once in the water, all we could see was beautiful blue-green sea, in a pristine color I've only seen in New Zealand. We had bright sunlight making the water glow that day. All we could see was this blue; the water was around 1500 feet deep! So imagine just having jumped in very cold water, looking around frantically, a little bit scared, not knowing what to expect, and ... ZOOM! A grey blur whizzes by you. What was that? A dusky dolphin of course. And you see more, more and more! In fact, they are more often swimming in groups of 2 or 3 than alone, just mere inches between one dolphin's fin and the body of the next.

It's difficult to describe the feeling of seeing animals who can swim with such amazing grace glide by just a few feet in front of your face. Awe is certainly a big part of the emotion. But there's also a bit of desperation, as these amazing marine mammals are just zooming past you, and you'd sure like to have a moment with them. We were taught in our video briefing to sing through our snorkel, which seemed completely ridiculous at the time, but once we were in the water, everyone was doing it! This is intended to get the dolphins' attention, they are very inquisitive creatures. It is also possible to dive down to entertain them. They are surprisingly unafraid, unlike wild mammals on the land.

So, your goal is to make some wild noises or move around to get the dolphins' attention. Inevitably, the first several zip right by, but even the first time we were in the water both Tiffany and I were able to catch the attention of a few dolphins. If you catch a dolphin's attention, he or she will swim around you in a circle, so we would try to swim in a circle ourselves to follow them. It takes all a human swimmer's ability just to keep up with a dolphin's slowest pace. As it swims around you, the dolphin will keep its eye on you, and if you follow it, you can gaze right into its eye. This eye contact is a very personal experience that truly feels like eye contact with a very intelligent being that is interested in you, and even seems to know something about you. Their eyes are deep, unlike a fish. You just feel their playfulness and intelligence during this experience.

After the pod moved, we were loaded back onto the benches on the back of the boat twice more, and again dumped into the water with the buzzer once the boat had found the dolphins again. In the last session, Tiffany had a very touching experience where she was not only able to get a dolphin's attention, but as she swam, the dolphin mirrored her movements. This feeling is just so different from the interaction we have had with any other animals in the world. We certainly wish the dolphins the best, and we will think carefully about dolphins in the future. They are a very special part of our world!

There are a few more photos for your viewing pleasure, including one of a dusky dolphin jumping, as they certainly seem to enjoy doing!:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, what awesome pictures of the sunrise and the adorable, intelligent dolphins. You guys truly had a special, once in a lifetime experience! Love, Wendy

11:58 PM  

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