You’ve probably never heard of Kaikoura. Honestly, I’d be surprised if you had. I’d been living in Dunedin (a 7 hour drive away) for three months before I knew anything about Kaikoura. But Kaikoura has something really special, and if you find yourself in the South Island of New Zealand, you should definitely make a detour here. That something special is swimming with dolphins in the open ocean. Yes, swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Before I get into the details of this magical experience, I want to provide fair warning that these are terrible photos. I didn’t have a GoPro at the time and I was cheap so I turned down the option to rent one. Please use your imagination to transport you from these blurry pictures to the warm water of the Pacific Ocean.
Swimming with Dolphins in Kaikoura
Okay, so first I want to clarify something. This isn’t “swimming with dolphins” like you’d do at a sea world. This is out in the ocean with 100% wild dolphins that are not baited or coerced with food. Let me tell you about it.
I went out with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura (a company I am in no way related to or sponsored by). First, we were fitted in wet suits and given snorkeling equipment. Next, we were driven 15 minutes out of Kaikoura where we met a boat. There were two boats and each had 16 people.
As the boats drove away from the shoreline, one of the guides from Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura asked if everyone had snorkeled before. Had I snorkeled before? Hell no, but if I told her that she might not have let me snorkel with dolphins. So I put my hand up just like everyone else.
We were on the boat for about 15 minutes before we got our first sign of dolphins. There were three boats out and they all communicated with one another. Something about the geography of the ocean floor by Kaikoura makes it especially attractive to dolphins and whales – several pods of dolphins regularly hangout there.
Once the boats were in the general vicinity of the dolphins, they stopped the engines and we were able to slip off the end of the boat and into the water. This is when I had a small panic attack and almost died. I slipped off the boat with everyone else, my head went under the water and for some reason my subconscious decided this was the moment to try inhaling through the snorkel. I took in a bunch of water and basically spent the first five minutes trying to keep myself alive.
But after a few minutes I calmed down (well, not really, but enough to notice the dolphins arrive). We were instructed to sing or hum under water – this would attract the dolphins to us. I began loudly singing “just keep swimming” (I still thought there was a chance I might drown) and sure enough, dolphins came to me.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling of watching dolphins swim underneath you. And I can’t explain the amazement of doggy-paddling alongside a dolphin, or the joy I experienced when one of them made noises to sing back to me (I named this dolphin Becca and she followed me around for a while). When one pod got bored of us, we hopped back on the boat and went looking for another one. Over 2.5 hours, I think we went in the water four separate times and spent 2/3 of the time actually with the dolphins.
After the swimming portion was complete, we drank tea and coffee and got warm and dry while the boat drivers followed another pod. The dolphins swam with the boat, jumping in and out of the wake.
Seriously, this was probably the most magical experience of my life.
Go swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura yourself
If you too want this incredible experience, here is what you need to know.
Getting there: Kaikoura is located 3.5 hours north of Christchurch. It is best to rent a car and drive there yourself.
Accommodation: There are several options for accommodation, from budget to luxury. I stayed at the Dusky Lodge & Backpackers, however I’ve heard that the Albatross Backpacker’s Inn is much nicer (both are ~$30 NZD).
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura: This is the guiding company that does the dolphin swimming. It costs $180 NZD and while that may seem expensive, it is very reasonable for what you’re getting. It’s critical that you book ahead (in the summer you should book at least three weeks in advance – but I’d recommend even earlier if you can). It’s a popular tour and they limit the boats to 16 swimmers so you get the best experience.
The best advice I will ever give you
Don’t be cheap. Rent a GoPro from the guiding company for $50 if you don’t have your own. I am still kicking myself for not doing this and not having better footage of this incredible moment.
Have you experienced swimming with dolphins? Does this make you want to add it to your bucket list? Questions, comments or concerns? Let me know in the comments below!