The Bay of Islands: Part Dolphin

It’s an odd feeling being up and moving before a town wakes up, but come 7:30am Sunday we were searching for any open food places. Luckily, one opened a few minutes before our cruise so we got some much needed nutrients to sustain us through the morning.

As you may have already guessed, we went on a swim with dolphins cruise! Honestly, it couldn’t have been more perfect; our boat was nearly empty (in contrast to the other dolphin cruiser headed out at the same time, which was packed with a tour group), the sun was shining and we were just about prepared to dip into the cold morning water. After the introduction and safety briefing from the friendly crew, we set off from Paihia for dolphin-favored areas, hoping to find some!

Oh hey, there's one!
Oh hey, there’s one!

After about two minutes into the four-hour cruise we turned around because a yacht captain had radioed us to say there was a big pod just off Waitanga. He wasn’t wrong; the cruise skipper reckoned every dolphin in the bay was there feeding. If we’d known, we could have watched them from shore! However, being on the boat was better as it allowed us to watch them close up.

The other, way more crowded, boat.
The other, way more crowded, boat.
My shoe got sprayed with dolphin breath.
My shoe got sprayed with dolphin breath.

Starting out, the bottlenose dolphins were more interested in getting breakfast than us, but after their fishy snack they grouped around the boats. Our guides explained that they like swimming under and next to the boat because they get pushed along by the wake. There was a dolphin researcher on our cruise and he got lots of good pictures, which he then uses to identify and track individual dolphins.

Like this, but probably not as blurry.
Like this, but probably not as blurry.

We could see where the dolphins had dived by their “footprints,” the circular area in the water formed by their tails:

The circular bit, behind the dolphin.
The circular bit bottom-left.

I also was surprised to learn that none of the pods are actual residents of the Bay, but rather different pods visit at different times, though there’s usually at least one hanging about. We also learned that dolphin pods are rather fluid groups, with individuals leaving and joining up with their friends on a whim. And, we learned that dolphins can have babies at any time of year!

The baby is looking at me!
The baby is looking at me!
Baby and mom.
Baby and mom.

Sadly for our splashing about plans, there are strict conditions on when swimming with them is permitted— essentially you’re not allowed to swim with them unless they want you to. Unfortunately for us, feeding and having young dolphins in the pod are both grounds to prohibit swimmers. So, after an hour we moved on in search of other pods.

Onward to the rest of the Bay!
Onward to the rest of the Bay!

However, the skipper’s prediction from earlier turned out to be unfortunately accurate and despite taking a wide-ranging route around the entire bay we didn’t see another pod. There was some consolation wildlife though! Near the Hole in the Rock was a small island that juvenile male New Zealand fur seals like to hang out on while they’re not old enough to challenge for dominance back at the breeding colonies in the south. It was a little early in the season, but a few guys were there already: one in the sea waving at us and one chilling on the rock.

Hello fur seal!
Hello fur seal!
Sleepy seal.
Sleepy seal.

Later, as we were heading back to harbor at full speed, K spotted what she thought was a seabird in distress, floundering with only it’s head above water. As we sped past though, we could both tell it was not in distress at all because it was a penguin! Due to the swiftness of the encounter we had no chance of getting a picture, and even if we had had the camera on hand, we were both too surprised to do anything. Neither of us was expecting to see one so far north and it was definitely the highlight of the cruise for M! Later we found out it was a little blue penguin, which is the world’s smallest penguin and have a few nests around the Bay. Another native bird (very native; I read that penguins probably evolved in NZ)!

A popular lagoon off one of the islands.
A popular lagoon off one of the islands.

Overall it was an excellent trip and well worth doing. We’ll probably be back at some point; whales are known to pass by the area in October or so and we were told conditions being right for swimming are more likely during the winter months. In addition, two types of orca whales cycle through the Bay: the local pods which swim around New Zealand and visit the Bay every 8-10 weeks, and Antarctic migrants who visit in the winter. No swimming with them, though.

Afterwards, we resumed our lifestyle of lazing around on the beach, going to a bar for burgers after. Then, we had an early night to get up for the dawn coach back to Auckland the next day and my first day of work!

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