(Not) swimming with dolphins in the far north
Heading north out of Auckland the low cloud started to lift and with it, my spirits. The top of New Zealand’s North Island has long been one of my favourite parts of the country, and it seemed as if the weather gods were determined to make sure it stayed that way.
It didn’t take long to leave the suburbs behind, houses and motorways soon giving way to trees and rolling hills. Woolly sheep and stolid cows stood in their paddocks, gazing balefully at the car as we passed. The sun shone down out of a clear blue sky. All was right with the world.
We were headed for Paihia, a small beach town in the Bay of Islands. It’s a popular spot, especially in the height of summer, and all of the cafes and bars were doing a roaring trade. We were staying at BASE Bay of Islands, an option that initially didn’t excite me much – the BASE hostels throughout the country are infamous for being large, impersonal party places, which is the complete opposite of what I usually look for.
Once we arrived, though, those misgivings disappeared. We were staying in an eight-bed dorm that was more like a self-contained cabin, split into two rooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The staff were absolutely lovely, the bar was a great place for a few drinks in the evening (or to party into the night, apparently) and once the Kiwi Experience bus pulled out of town, the whole place took on a chilled-out, sand-between-the-toes kind of vibe. Until the next bus rolled in a few hours later, of course…
The following lunchtime I wandered down to the wharf to take a Swimming with the Dolphins trip out amongst the islands with Explore NZ. Although I had seen plenty of those smart marine mammals over the years, I’d never been in the water with them, and was super-excited to finally get the chance.
It took a couple of hours to locate a pod, quite a bit longer than usual. Perhaps they had better things to do than hang out with me. Once we drew close enough to identify the individual dolphins, excitement mixed with disappointment when we saw the babies awkwardly swimming alongside their mothers. New Zealand conservation laws prevent entering the water when young dolphins are present – understandable, since babies feed every three minutes and disrupting that cycle can easily result in their death. Killing dolphins wasn’t exactly what anyone had planned for their trip, so we all sadly stayed put on the boat.
Even though my long-awaited swimming experience didn’t happen, watching a dozen dolphins gliding alongside the boat was magical. The babies were hilarious, trying to copy their mothers as they arched out of the water to take a breath only to flop back down with a big splash every time. Adults rode the boat’s bow wave and zipped in and out of the wake whenever we moved, and amused themselves by leaping in the air whenever they tired of playing with us.
After around fifteen minutes the dolphins decided they’d had enough of our excited collective gasping and, on an invisible signal, disappeared under the waves and were gone. We also decided it was time to leave, finishing up in a sheltered cove where the gasps turned to shrieks as people braved the chilly temperatures and dived into the sea. As one of the few Kiwi passengers on board, I had to join them – there was no way I could let on my lifetime loathing of cold water and be shown up by people from overseas…
Basking in the sun on the way back to Paihia, I finally took a moment to appreciate the glorious surroundings of the Bay of Islands. The afternoon light reflected off small waves as tiny rainbows formed in the boat’s spray. Yachts stood on the horizon, a light sea breeze filling their sails while gulls wheeled and screamed overhead. Hillsides covered in native bush rolled down into a dark ocean, puffy white clouds floating unthreateningly overhead. Beauty was everywhere, and my salty lips parted in a smile.
This was only my fourth day back in my homeland and already I was falling back in love with it, far faster and more strongly than I had ever expected. It was going to be a wonderful next two months.
I could hardly wait.
This trip through New Zealand is being made possible by Hostelbookers, Tourism New Zealand and Xcom Global. Many thanks for their assistance with my accommodation, activities and connectivity in the country!
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