SWIMMING WITH WILD DOLPHINS

By Deneice Athurston

I admit it – I’m a dolphin swim junkie and probably nowhere on the planet can I indulge this passion as much as in New Zealand. What makes New Zealand so special with regards to swimming with wild dolphins is that there are so many companies to choose from and each offer something a little different depending on where they are located and the species of dolphin that hang around that area.

Luckily for me I discovered Black Cat Cruises fairly early on in my continuous quest and have since returned to them three times. Swimming with wild dolphins is always going to be magical but this company so enhance every experience with their fun attitude, knowledge and high ethics that in my mind no others come even close.

Black Cat Cruises, who operate from the wharf in Akaroa Harbour, are pretty special for lots of reasons and not least of all because here you get to swim with Hector’s dolphins – the smallest and rarest marine dolphin on the whole planet. What’s more Hector’s dolphins are 100% Kiwi as they are only found in the coastal waters of New Zealand.

In Akaroa the dolphins are never far away and in the past I’ve stood on the Akaroa shore itself and seen dolphins just metres away checking out a kayaker. Sometimes the swims take place in the calm waters of the harbour and at other times the dolphins will be hanging around outside the harbour mouth.

On the day of your swim you are asked to arrive in good time so you can be kitted out with thick wetsuits, boots, snorkels and masks and briefed on your swim. In winter, dry suits are provided as an extra defence against these chilly waters. Boats are only allowed a maximum of 10 people who want to swim with the dolphins and Black Cat observe this to the letter as much to protect the dolphins as to ensure a great experience for you. Often there will be less than 10 swimmers because the rest of the people on the boat have come to watch without getting wet.

The trip is about 2 hours and as you head out on the boat your guide will talk a bit about the dolphins and everyone gets involved in being on the look-out for the distinctive ‘Mickey Mouse ear’ shaped fin of the Hector’s dolphin. If you get lucky, half of the 2 hour tip will actually be spent in the water with the dolphins. If an hour seems like an infeasibly long time to be bobbing about in the chilly ocean then let me tell you that time takes on a whole different meaning when you are surrounded by dolphins. On one dolphin swim with this company I climbed back into the boat, having become an unfetching shade of blue and with arms and legs which had turned to jelly. As I lie panting on the boat’s deck and grinning an inane grin I discovered that an hour had passed. It had felt like minutes.

Black Cat really care about their customers; you are made to feel well looked after and valued but more importantly they care about the dolphins most of all and again and again this is borne out. A proportion of every single customer’s fee is donated to the conservation of the Hector’s dolphins and the research which ensures maximum protection is afforded. Black Cat Cruises are also holders of the Green Globe 21 Award, a prestigious international recognition given to companies who promote and deliver the highest environmental practices. Black Cat were the first ever cruise company worldwide who earned themselves this award.

And the merits of Black Cat Cruises don’t end there. They have a really excellent refund policy with regards to their dolphin swims. Although more than 80% of their cruises result in successful dolphin swims nothing is guaranteed. These creatures are wild and on rare occasions they just don’t want to play or even show themselves and at other times the weather and sea conditions are real spoil sports. ‘Successful’ swim is something which Black Cat interpret very differently to many other companies, some of whom just dump you in the ocean amidst the dolphins passing through and then haul you out again once they have passed. On one occasion with Black Cat Cruises, dolphins were present and twice we were put into the water. The dolphins had a quick look and disappeared. This is not deemed a successful swim in the eyes of Black Cat and the refund policy was implemented.