Dolphins have always held a captivating allure for humans. Perhaps it is because we are drawn to the characteristics that remind us of our own race; an undeniable intelligence and a craving for social interaction. Dating back to Greek mythology when dolphins were regarded as sacred, and their killing a crime, we have always had a close relationship with them.
The affection we feel for dolphins is not a one-way street as they also seem to seek out the company of humans. From stories of swimmers brought safely to shore, to herding of yellow mullets into the nets of fishermen off the coast of Mauritania and Brazil, numerous tales around the world recounts how dolphins have helped, cooperated with or simply played with humans across the open seas.
Not all humans have held their end of the bargain however. Heart-breaking documentaries such as ‘The Cove’, together with accounts of major by-catch in the fishing industry have highlighted questionable human activities, and the need for comprehensive marine mammal protection schemes around the world.
One place that has excelled in the preservation and protection of dolphins and their natural habitats is New Zealand. In 1978, The government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and over the years, has established large chunks of coastal areas into marine sanctuaries. There are today 6 of them in the country, where the department of conservation controls, and enforces rules to regulate the growing cetacean watching industry, in and outside conservancy areas.
The result of decade long protection efforts is the country's rich marine ecosystem, inhabited by a vast array of cetaceans, colourful reefs, and thriving fish life. With a strong political will to protect such national treasures, New Zealand has gained attention from environmentalists like Greenpeace, and along the way, has set a standard for a growing ecotourism sector.
Observing Dolphins in Tauranga
With over 9 different species of dolphins in its waters, New Zealand is without doubt one of the best locations in the southern hemisphere to go on a seafaris. Especially interesting is the Bay of Plenty, situated 200 km South-East of Auckland, which is blessed by an abundant marine life. From Tauranga, its main city, tourists can enjoy wildlife sightings as hundreds of dolphins inhabit this area, with killer whales, Humpback whales, penguins and seals also present.
A common dolphin, off the coast of Tauranga.
Dolphins are inquisitive by nature, and unless disturbed or uninterested, usually don't shy away from humans. As they effortlessly reach speeds of 20-22 knots, they will have no trouble following a boat for a while, before going away. Moving in large schools, occasionally going for playful flips as they swim alongside the bow-waves, they undoubtedly materialise the popular image we have from dolphins.
Killer whales are residents in New Zealand waters. They form long-term social groups known as pods, with a typical size of about two to four members, which is smaller than elsewhere. The population is estimated between 150 to 200, with sightings reported throughout the year, in the Bay of Plenty, East Cape and Hawke’s Bay regions.
An orca spotted during a day trip in the Bay of Plenty.
With about 95% chances of successful sightings, Tauranga offers interesting opportunities to swim with dolphins. Accompanied by a custom-built vessel for easy, minimal-impact viewing, and provided with snorkelling gear and wetsuits, you can ensure that everything is taken care of as you concentrate on watching these beautiful creatures.
The real thing ! Dolphins checking on us while swimming a few meters away from the observation boat.
Another aspect of swimming with dolphins are pregnant women. It's speculated that dolphins’ sonar sensing enables them to detect the beating heart of an unborn child. In return, dolphins are thought to be more inquisitive than usual, and devote extra attention to expecting mums. While we can't confirm the scientific theory, our experience has shown that all of our expectant guests had the privilege to receive extra attention from dolphins. Some of them learning later on they were indeed pregnant !
New Zealand's dolphin experience
Dolphins and humans have undeniable connections, curious of one another, sharing the oceans, capable of emotions and deep social interactions. One could argue that we should let them be wild animals, away from humans. The reality of conservation is that it is far more effective to protect what the public is familiar with.
New Zealand, as many other countries, has chosen to promote cetacean watching as an integral part of its protection scheme, and to back this growing tourism activity with strong regulations, and continuous research programs.
For example, boats can not go in pursuit of a cetacean pod, or in other words, "if they are interested, they'll come to you" is the golden rule to peacefully coexist with them. Further, a maximum of 90 minutes at a time is allowed with wild dolphins, while in-water experiences cannot exceed 60 minutes. In the presence of juvenals, swimming is strictly forbidden. Finally, ongoing research in the Bay of Islands (up North) assesses the establishment of resting areas, where seafaris are not allowed.
The rewards? A truly unique experience between humans and wild dolphins, and sometimes amazing encounters like the one below; a humpback whale emerging from the ocean depths, while you are swimming freely in the open sea.
Sighting of a life time; a Humpback whale photographed during an excursion in the Bay of Plenty.
Settled by Mauri in the 13th century, established as a city in 1963, Tauranga is fairly populous by New Zealand standards (127,000 by 2014 estimates). It is situated 200 km south from Auckland, a 2.5 hour drive by car, or a 5 hours bus journey.
To foreign tourists, it's an opportunity to connect with New Zealanders' outdoors culture, with trails in the Kamai Mamaku park, or go to the Otanewainuku forest, one of the few places still in its virgin unlogged state, and home to a variety of native birds and animals.
Icing on the cake, if you're in for a lazy-day, you can also enjoy beautiful beaches near Mount Maunganui, voted Trip Advisor's 2015 Travelers' Choice for World's Top Beaches.
For scuba diving enthusiasts, the Bay of Plenty boasts an extensive marine life diversity, available all year round. One notable place is the Tuhua marine reserve, 35 km off the coast of Tauranga.
Watching and Swimming with dolphins
Cameron is a licensed catamaran skipper, and operates award winning dolphin and whale watching excursions in Tauranga, New Zealand.
If you have kimshi iPhone App, you can send him a direct message : Open in App or take a closer look at his tour "Safe watching and swimming with dolphins".
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pictures Cameron Fines ©
text kimshi ©