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Picton – Dolphins

I woke up in the eight-bed female dorm to the sound of my alarm going off at 6:45am. I was cold and cranky and there was rain on the windows. I was told to call the Dolphin Tour at 7am to make sure the trip wasn’t cancelled due to weather. Part of me hoped it was cancelled so I could go back to bed. Nope, still on, the boat leaving at 8am. I had to pack up all my stuff quietly, store it in the car, grab my wetsuit and get down to the boat by 7:30am. Luckily it was only a five-minute walk away.

I was a little late, but it didn’t matter since the early arrival was to be fitted for a wetsuit and I already had my own. Looking at their racks of suits I realized mine was a much thinner variety. The woman said they were 6 or 7mm. Mine is a 3/2. She said I should be fine, and though the thicker suits definitely keep you warm, they also add a whole lot of bouyancy, which some people find annoying. I grabbed one to bring along as a backup. I’m a good swimmer, so I don’t need the bouyancy and I know the thicker suits can be very restrictive and much more work to swim in. But I didn’t want to be so cold that the trip was uncomfortable.

On the boat I put on my wetsuit. The tour group consisted of seven women and one man. A man was driving the boat and a woman gave us an introductory talk as we sped out into the sound. It might take a while to find a pod, so we might have to be patient. Once we did, we would ride by and do a viewing first – picture time! There were some prohibitions against swimming with certain dolphins: not with Hector’s Dolphins, which are endangered, not with groups that have really young dolphins and not with dolphins obviously engaged in some activity such as feeding. It was also against DOC guidelines to touch a dolphin, though they may touch us, which does happen. She said sometimes they will come along side you and rub up against you.

Once we have figured out who the dolphins are and what they are doing we would maneuver into their path and drop us off. Once in the water, it was important to be excited and start making crazy noises – loudly and creatively. We have to give them a reason to come over and check us out. People trying to swim with them aren’t a novelty on their own anymore – we have to convince them we will be fun. And keep your heads down, that is where the action is. She repeated this one a few times.

She would blow a whistle when we could jump in – well, really, scoot in on our butts off the back of the boat. We would be wearing masks, snorkels and fins. If she blew the whistle in the water we should look up at her. She would point us in the right direction to find the dolphins or give us other instructions. One was bring her hands together telling us to gather so that we could get back on the boat.

So we sped along in the boat, standing around in the cabin in our wetsuits. The woman and a young assistant who I had seen at my hostel earlier stood next to the captain scanning the sound with binoculars. It wasn’t very long at all until we found bottlenose dolphins – and lots of them. They were spread out all across the sound, traveling fast. They might be searching for food, not necessarily a good time to try to swim with them. Soon enough we had picked up a few surfers. Right beneath the boat in the front and back the dolphins sped along the wake created. Playfully zig-zagging and leaping out of the water almost within reach. Hard not to laugh with delight when you see that. Many had visible scars and chunks missing from their dorsal fin, results of interactions with each other and boats.

My camera isn’t exactly made for action shots, so I gave up pretty quickly on capturing the most amazing dolphin shot. I put it away and just enjoyed watching in real life. Here are two where you can see how close to the boats they are:

After a bit, the tour guide told us to get ready on the back of the boat. We geared up and sat four in a row along the back. She handed me and one other woman a couple of rocks to hit together. The dolphins really like this, as it is very close to the sounds they make. When the driver found what seemed to be a good position, she blew the whistle and we pushed off into the water. Brrrrrr. It was really cold. I immediately looked down, like the good student I am. And started banging the rocks and squealing. It was dark and murky green and my mask was a bit fogged. It didn’t seem like I could see farther than a few feet down. A continued on for a while. Nothing. Finally I looked up out of the water and back. I had left everyone pretty far behind. But then up ahead of me, nearer the coast, I saw two dolphins leaping out. Head back in the water I excitedly swam in that direction, banging rocks and making strange noises. Still nothing but a hazy, green expanse. I circled back and headed to the others. They seemed to be splashing around like something was happening. The guide blew her whistle and pointed us towards the shore. They were headed up along that coast. They also kept yelling, “Heads down! Heads down!” I see now why people want to bring their head up out of the water. Easier to get your bearings that way, and maybe see a dolphin leaping out of the water. But if they pass under you at that moment, you miss it. I was getting a little frustrated staring into that empty green. I kept banging away on those rocks. Right before we were called back to the boat, two dolphins passed quickly under me. Cool, but so brief. I really hoped that wasn’t it.

Back on the boat, the other swimmers were excited, they had seen lots of them passing under. I kept quiet and started shivering pretty intensely. If its cold in the water, its far colder to be wet on the back of a speeding boat. Another woman who was in one of the thick suits was shivering worse than me. The guide started up a hose with warm water and passed it to her to put down her suit. When it finally got to me it was instant relief, the hot water passing down over my legs as though I had peed myself. Contrary to what that sounds like it was a wonderful feeling.

Circling around a bit trying to gather some of the pod swimming with us, they found another spot, this time close to some freight tied along the coast. I kept the rocks with me this time and was more determined than ever to make a complete fool of myself and attract some dolphins. I also made more of an effort to stay with the group. I swear I could hear chirping-like noises at times – maybe the sounds of dolphins. But I could also hear the echo of my own chirping rock-banging. Finally a white streak appeared below me and I stopped in slight astonishment. Unfortunately it wasn’t moving and became clear it was only an encrusted steel pole holding up the pier we were near. Every so often I would lift my head out of the water and look back to the boat for instructions. The was pointing us in another direction. More empty, murky space. I would look out of the water, see jumping dolphins and swim that way. Still nothing. I was banging the rocks louder and faster in sheer frustration. I now realize the dolphins probably knew exactly where I was and were studiously avoiding the crazy rock-banging lady, lest their ears burst. If something on land was making an interesting, but loud and insistent noise, I might go that way too. But I certainly wouldn’t get that close. I climbed back onto the boat amidst excited talk having seen absolutely nothing. I told the guide as I got in and she was surprised and sympathetic. “We’ll definitely get you to see some.”

I left the rocks on the boat the next time we slid in. The guide pointed us in the right direction. I stayed close to the American guy with the underwater video camera who was making really loud yee-haw noises. A couple of times I ran full-on into the other swimmers fins and faces. A jumble of wetsuit legs and mumbled-through-snorkel sorrys. I figured I was in the right place. One of the German young ladies had taken pity on me that I hadn’t seen any yet when I told her on the boat. She has seen tons passing under. I realized I had yet to dive down from the surface at all. I had been merely skimming and breathing through the snorkel. So just to amuse myself I decided to dive down. RIght as I did I came across two dolphins swimming under me in pairs. Then playtime began.

I came up to the surface, spit out the snorkel, blew the water out, stuck it quickly back in my mouth and put my head down looking around for more. Very soon, a pair of dolphins passed close underneath. I dove down, put my legs together and swam like them trying to pull up alongside them. I got close and then they were off. Obviously much better swimmers than me, but I had gotten close. Over the next 15 to 20 minutes different pairs and sometimes threes of dolphins would pass underneath me every few minutes. Each time I would immediately dive down and try as best as I could to keep up with them. It was a surreal and dreamlike experience. I don’t know how many times I dove down but it was plenty. One of the times I stayed under a bit longer than I was prepared for and came up to the surface gasping for breath and laughing at the same time – the exertion of trying to swim with them was immense.

When we were kids, my sister Kerry and I used to play a dolphin game at the pool. One of us would close our eyes and the other would make high-pitched dolphin noises for the other to follow. Underwater we would both swim gyrating up and down like dolphins. This swimming with real dolphins had a nostalgic feeling to it and I think my imagination of it as a kid was not too far off.

We heard the whistle and looked up to see the guide motioning us to come together to get back on the boat. As we were, someone noticed more dolphins leaping out of the water heading to us. Like a permissive mother, the guide looked at us and said, “Go..go…” We reattached our masks and excitedly headed in their direction, swimming fast and making noises. Playtime wasn’t over yet. One pair passed under swimming to my left and I got close enough that I swear I saw the closer, smaller dolphin look me in the eye, maybe surprised as I came at him. My final swim was alongside a threesome. I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of their tails fading simultaneously into the blue-green haze.

As we swam back to the boat the guide was saying”Wow. I think that is the best swim I have ever seen…they were fascinated with you guys…I haven’t even gotten to do that….” Normally I would assume she always says this to people after their swim, but I detected a real note of jealousy in her voice. “And those are WILD dolphins…” A climbed onto the boat in such a state of elation, surrounded by the other swimmers who were clearly feeling the same way.

As we sped away more dolphins came along to ride the wake. Some of them were REALLY big – as much as 9 feet long. Alongside the boat one was swimming on his side, his eye peering out at us as we leaned over the side looking back at him.

Walking back to the hostel with my wetsuit over my shoulder and a big, stupid grin on my face, I probably looked half-idiotic. Such an amazing experience.

9 comments

  1. Wow

    Great story, Beth. Kerry will be pleased to know that years ago she was a part of your training for this day. MOB

  2. I am fascinated with you too. And this made me laugh out loud a couple of times.

    At first I figured this is just the way locals get visitors to pay to make complete fools of themselves. Yeah, yeah, just keep swimming around banging rocks and making strange noises. Yeah they love that.

    And by the way peeing on yourself when you’re cold always feels good.

  3. yep, I was feeling like a sucker at the beginning, for sure. hahaha. That last line about them being fascinated with us was accidental, I had written it to remember to add it in the story then didn’t see it still hanging out at the bottom when I posted. But it pretty much does sum up what made the swimming with them so great – wouldn’t have been fun if they were just mildly interested…

  4. Definitely the one thing we regretted not doing while we were there! Great story. You made a good dolphin when we were kids, but I hope one day to swim with real ones. 🙂 Glad it all worked out. Reminded me of a story I read about Navy seals in training. They had to lie down arm in arm with the other recruits on the beach with the cold surf breaking over them, repeatedly submerging them. The ONLY thing they said that was even remotely pleasant was when they peed on themselves to feel brief warmness…

  5. WOW !

    I got up in the middle of the night, as I usually do, and low and behold there was your incredible story. WOW! Your writing is really great it puts me right their, I felt your experience. After a long, long day I would just like to say that what you have experienced is truly amazing. It is amazing to me that you could actually do what you have done. Who keeps the sharks away from this reserve for the dolphins? What a wonderful experience. From what I have read dolphins are the next in line to intelligence behind us. There is no where in the United States that this would even be allowed, the insurance alone would be prohibitive. I can only imagine the high you would get after an experience such as this, UNBELIEVALBE! Kudos to you for even doing this. As far as I am concerned this alone was well worth the trip and you still have the Milford Track ahead of you. Wish I could give you a great big hug. Thanks for sharing, love PLOB

  6. A request

    I have been meaning to ask, but have just keep forgetting. Can I give this site to friends who would be interested in reading? I have some friends who I share your stories with but I feel certain that they would love to read them themselves. I’m afraid I really don’t know much about how this works, I am just grateful that I can participate. Love ya, PLOB

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