Sam and I went to Christchurch in the summer of 2010 with the specific intention of swimming with Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa Harbour, off Banks Peninsula. Hector’s dolphins are endangered and are considered to be one of the rarest dolphins in the world.They are only found in the waters surrounding New Zealand, mainly residing off the western and eastern coasts of the South Island. These dolphins are unique in that they prefer shallow, coastal waters less than 100m deep, within about 9km of the shoreline. Banks Peninsula on the eastern coast of the South Island was designated as a marine protected area in 1988. This restricts commercial gillnetting to 7.4km offshore, which is believed to be a major cause of death for these dolphins.
View Akaroa Harbour in a larger map
We booked a dolphin swim tour with Black Cat Cruises which took us out onto Akaroa Harbour. We preferred to sit out on the front of the boat and it wasn’t long before we had company in the form of Hector’s dolphins riding the bow wave. They are unmistakable, their black rounded dorsal fin distinguishes them from other types of dolphins, and is often said to look like a Mickey Mouse ear. They were in a playful mood and the boat slowly came to a stop and we were instructed to jump out into the water. The waters of Akaroa Harbour are pretty damn cold, even in summer, so we were equipped with intense wetsuits which we could barely do anything but float in! The boat basically just dropped us in the water and drove away, since we wouldn’t be able to swim as much as we tried. Having such buoyant wetsuits actually turned out to be an advantage, making the naturally curious dolphins opt to swim towards us.
They are smaller than other dolphins around New Zealand, weighing 40-60kg and measuring 1.2-1.6m in length. We were told not to kick around too much in the water because it can scare them away, we are generally bigger than them after all. We obeyed this rule religiously, although we had earlier found that kicking in the water was pointless anyway. Sure enough within a couple of minutes we were surrounded by Hector’s dolphins swimming surprisingly fast around us. We were given snorkeling gear but didn’t end up using it since the visibility in the water wasn’t that great and the dolphins seemed to come to the top of the water anyway. They would come as close as 1 metre away with their head turned to the side and an eye open and peering up at you close to the surface of the water. The experience was breathtaking, both from the amazing encounter and also literally at times when I was worried they might swim straight into me! Luckily their echolocation skills were intact and they narrowly missed us consistently throughout the swim.
I would recommend doing this to anyone visiting New Zealand.
@Change is currently petitioning to stop the extinction of Hector and Maui dolphins, if you believe in this cause you can sign the online petition here. Stop Hector & Maui Dolphin Extinction
To see our latest encounters with wildlife take a look at our time in Yellowstone National Park