Bay of Islands - Swimming with the Dolphins (aka Binge-Grinning with the Bottlenose!)

When you reside in the cloudiest city in the country that has an average temperature of 9.9˚C and 1112mm of rainfall per annum (I’m looking at you, Invercargill), you tend to spend the year looking forward to summer. And so it presents a problem when sunshine peaks on the first day of your three week December road trip of the North Island, and doesn’t even resurface in the Bay of Islands, a piece of the famed “Winterless North”.

But when it’s raining in Russell, or Paihia, there is one activity that will make you beam: swimming with bottlenose dolphins in the bay. The dolphins don’t care if the weather’s terrible, and these playful creatures love humans.  These waters are supposed to be among the warmest in the country, but the temperature soon fades into insignificance when a dorsal fin breaks the water surface.

We elected to take the Fullers Great Sights Dolphin Eco Experience tour, which allows you to take a dip with the dolphins if the situation is suitable. Only a few companies in the area have permits to take tourists out dolphin-spotting, and there are certain conditions that much be satisfied before anyone can jump off the boat. The dolphins are all wild, and the companies are forbidden to feed them. The animals must actively demonstrate playful behaviour before anyone can attempt to engage with them, and if there is a calf (baby) in the pod, then getting in the water is totally forbidden.

We rocketed around the bay in a boat with around seven other tourists for at least half an hour before finding a pod of dolphins. The sky was grey and the wind had a bit of a bite to it, but I was all set to leap off the boat and tell the nearest dolphin that I loved him. However, this pod appeared to be having something of a snooze, and weren’t much interested in us. Our guide, who had been doing the tour for years and years, had an undying passion for the animals, and she eagerly pointed out a few that she recognised. She admitted to having a few favourites, some of which she had watched grow up from dolphin calfhood. Identification, she said, came from the shape of the dorsal fin, and from unique markings on their skin.

We followed the pod from a distance for a while, before another tour company radioed us the location of another pod, who promised to be quite energetic. We found them easily, and the company kitted us out in shortie wetsuits, flippers, masks, and snorkels, before sending us into the bay with instructions not to touch.

The dolphins were absolutely incredible. They could easily outswim the boat, yet slowed down enough for us to keep pace with them, and got so close I could have put my arms out and hugged them. The dolphins measure 2-4m long, and can weigh over 600kg. The fact that they could eat you if they wanted to, but would much rather play, is such a credit to their wonderfully gentle nature. They get very excited when you dive underwater with them, and our guide told us a story of one trip where the dolphins practically ignored all the other tourists in favour of a freediver who had come with them and completely stolen the dolphins’ attention.

The bottlenose absolutely made my day, and in fact were probably the best part of the entire trip. I have every intention of repeating the experience the next time I find myself in this part of the country.

 Related posts you may like:

Experiencing the Bay of Islands On-board the R. Tucker Thompson

High-Flying Sightseeing with Rotorua Canopy Tours

Coromandel & Driving Creek Railway

Taking a Leap with Taupo Bungy

This story and photos have been kindly supplied by Stephanie Grange as part of our Summer Holiday Writing Competition.  Dolphins are such wonderful creatures, we're glad to hear you had the chance to swim with them!