We Actually Swam with Dolphins!

In early December, one of my college friends came to visit us in New Zealand as the first stop on his year-long round-the-world adventure. He planned a bus trip around the South Island but stayed with us on the North Island for about a week, so we took him to one of our favorites: the Bay of Islands. We hadn’t been since we first arrived in New Zealand and he wanted to do some adventurous water activities. In the end, we decided on the Cream Trip, a day-long cruise around the islands that included everything: a stop at an island for us, something called “boom-netting” for him, and swimming with the dolphins if conditions permitted. The hostel we were staying at helpfully booked it for us- with a discount- and we set our alarms for the next morning (my friend, a night owl, wasn’t too happy about that).

The weather was perfect for our trip!

We woke up, found breakfast and lunch for the journey, and headed to the dock to board the cruise. There were a few other tours leaving at the same time, including the dolphin trip that we’d gone on last time, but our boat for the day was the largest, meaning that it never felt too crowded on board. Before long, we jetted across to Russell to pick up some additional people, listened to the customary safety information and non-customary dolphin swimming information, and were on our way out into the bay.

Part of the tour was a history of the Bay of Islands, which was the site of the first major contact between Maori and Europeans as the latter group began establishing settlements (such as Russell) in the area. We cruised past sites of historical importance on various islands, but the captain was keeping a close ear on the radio in case of dolphin sightings. We chased a report of a pod around a few islands, then powered across the water to catch a group in a secluded bay on a different island. When we arrived, another boat was already present with swimmers in the water. Our boat quickly stopped and the crew rushed to get us our snorkels and flippers. I was one of the first to jump into the water: luckily it was into a net as the cold water was a big shock! Almost as jarring was the sight of a bottle-nosed dolphin gliding past ten feet in front of me. Fueled by adrenaline from the on-board chaos, the cold water, and the thrill of being so close to a dolphin, I awkwardly started swimming out towards them, M and the rest close behind me.

It was easy to spot them in the clear water.

The first thing that we noticed while swimming with the dolphins (there was about four of them in total) was that they are large. From a distance, or on TV, they seem so graceful and delicate, but up close they are giant, muscular, scarred creatures that are bigger and much more at home in the water than you. While the dolphins barely seemed to move their tails as they swept by us, we splashed and struggled to keep up with them. By the end of the swim I had stopped trying to chase them, hoping that they’d decide to swim by me instead and listening for the telltale whistles and clicks that meant a dolphin was near. But when they did pass by, it was magical: they often swam close together, or upside down, and weren’t afraid to get close. The clear water meant we could see them even if they were cruising along the bottom below us. It was an exhausting and cold swim, and I wasn’t too sad when the captain called us in after 20 minutes, but the whole trip was justified just for that experience.

The dolphins liked to visit our boat! Note there’s actually two of them in this photo.

After the excitement of swimming with the dolphins, it was time to dry off and warm up on our lunch stop, Urupukapuka Island. The boat docked in a clear lagoon and we debarked with our lunches to lounge on the grass behind the beach. I appreciated this time in the sun (off the moving boat) as I’d gotten quite chilled during the swim. Between the sun, lunch, and the antics of visiting sparrows and seagulls hoping for some crumbs, I felt much better after this intermission. If we go back again, we’d like to rent a boat just to cruise these idyllic island bays all day.

Our boat, with islands in the Bay behind it.

After lunch, we got back on board the boat. With the pressure of finding and swimming with dolphins out of the way, the rest of the trip felt more leisurely as we cruised past islands, lagoons, and beaches. Lest we get too comfortable, though, the captain soon moved out into open water in the middle of the bay and announced that anyone on board was welcome to try boom-netting. Despite the promise of wetsuits (where were they during our dolphin swim?), I was not keen on getting back in the water as I’d just warmed up again. M and my friend were excited about it, so I was placed on picture duty.

For the boom-netting, the participants jumped back into the net on the side of the boat and hung on while the captain accelerated, decelerated, turned sharply, and generally gave them a thrilling ride. People hanging onto the ends tended to stay in one place, though often got a face full of seawater, while people in the middle got tossed about in the net. My friend, quite the daredevil, almost fell out of the net a few times! It did look like a lot of fun, I’ll brave the cold water the next time boom-netting is an option.

Looks like cold fun!

The last stop on our trip was the iconic Hole in the Rock. This formation is out at the farthest reaches of the bay, where the protected island water gives way to the open ocean. It is one of the major attractions of the Bay of Islands and as we powered up to it, another boat was just leaving, giving us a good scale for the hole. The captain’s question of whether we wanted to go through the hole was enthusiastically answered, but when he asked us if we thought we’d fit, people were less sure. He laughed and said that we would fit and that conditions were right, so we lined up and entered the narrow channel. The water was lightly churning, the sides of the boat were mere feet away from the walls, and the people on the top deck seemed very close to the ceiling, but we made it through with no issues.

The Hole in the Rock, with a smaller boat for scale.


We cruised out of the Hole in the Rock and into the ocean, where the captain was hoping to see some common dolphins. No dolphins appeared, but we had a wonderful ride back into the bay as the sun was getting low.

After freshening up at the hostel, us and our friend wandered across the street to a local bar which had $6 burgers and nice beer. We reflected on our luck during the trip: the captain said that the cruise was able to swim with dolphins about 30% of the time and pass through the Hole in the Rock about 40% of the time, making our journey one of the 12% which got to do both. Our friend was duly impressed with the Bay of Islands and New Zealand; we’ll have to see if he can find anywhere better on his trip around the world.

(Note: you can follow his blog here: http://learnsomething.muruguvenkat.com/.)


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