I wonder what they thought of us – those strange rubbery figures, black-clad, splashing suddenly into their world from somewhere above.
“Be like the dolphins,” they had advised us on the boat, as we were pulling on our wetsuits and snorkles. “Sing, sqwark, dip, duck. They’ll show more interest in you if they think you are one of them.”
It was a ludicrous proposition. They were born to the water, leaping effortlessly upwards and flipping in lazy somersaults above our heads. We, clumsy in our oversized flippers and swallowing water with every other breath, could never be like them. It was our privilege to even be among them, marvelling as they swished past us, so close we were almost touching. Occasionally we caught their curiosity and then they turned and circled us inquisitively. In those moments, I could half swear I heard them laughing at us, pitying our awkward slowness. And then they were off again, speeding away in a streak of grey; elegant and ever elusive.
This was Kaikoura, New Zealand, where swimming with wild dolphins is possible for those brave enough to roll out of bed at 5am and slip into the icy ocean from a speedboat bucking in the waves. Heading out as the sun rose was something spectacular in itself. New Zealand sees the very first sunrise in the world, and the pinks and orange which light up the sky are so brilliant that it almost hurts to look at them. It was against these citrus skies that we first saw our dancing dolphins, arching over the horizon. Dusky dolphins are known as one of the most acrobatic breeds of the species, and they richly deserve their accolade. They are given no incentive to swim near the boats or play with its passengers, they simple love an audience.
Dolphins aren’t the only inhabitants of the Kaikoura waters – further out in the deep blue yonder are the whales. All sorts of varieties congregate here; southern right whales, big blue whales, loggerheaded sperm whales… but the two we saw on our trip were both humpbacks. They came close enough to our boat for us to realise how impossibly huge they were – a murky mass raising from the depths, the head peeking out of the waves for just a minute before turning downwards, the spectacular tail rising upwards and flicking spray into the air. Perhaps the humpbacks are jealous of the dolphins, because they are the only whales who breach, flinging their massive bodies out the water. Not as graceful, perhaps, but undeniably impressive.
Our time with the dolphins was almost up. On each trip into the water they’d come closer and closer to us, and on this final encounter I dipped my head into the water to see a dolphin, barely inches away, staring straight back at me. Involuntarily, I squawked. Perhaps there was indeed some truth in their tips, because the dolphin languished that second longer, laughing at me, before turning tail and spinning away.