For many of us, a life-affirming experience will be the birth of a child or a religious conversion. For others, it’s swimming with dolphins! You only have to read poetic reviews on Trip Advisor to get the idea of how genuinely surprising and magical it can be for people.
Before you get uncomfortable about things like dolphinariums and exploitation (understandably very controversial topics), it’s reassuring to know that interacting with sea life in New Zealand is extremely different than many other parts of the world.
In New Zealand, you will be spending time with wild dolphins in their natural environment at the right distance, on their terms only. Thankfully there are strict, monitored conservation policies around tourism and dolphin encounters (more on that below under ‘Dolphin Conservation’).
There are three main operators in the Bay of Islands that can guide your boat trip and/or swim. We’ll tell you all about them, and give you some tips about your intimate dolphin experience, including how to keep yourself and these beautiful, precious creatures safe.
What to expect when swimming with dolphins
People describe dolphins looking deeply into their eyes, inquisitive, playful and charming, seeming to be genuinely interested in getting to know any new human friends. The feelings seem to really stay with people. In fact, if you read some accounts, you may foresee an experience like this:
But jokes aside, swimmers are often overwhelmed by their emotional reactions to these wild creatures gliding around them, sometimes within touching distance (you’re not advised to reach out to them, sorry!). We’d suggest the experience is added to your bucket list. And the Bay of Islands is a top spot to do it.
With a resident dolphin population estimated to be 500 strong, you’re likely to see wild dolphins and migratory whales year-round.
And it’s one of the few spots where you’re allowed to actually get in the water and swim alongside wild dolphins via a registered tourism provider.
Is swimming with dolphins dangerous?
Dolphins can swim at speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour (25 miles per hour) when they’re racing along in a hurry, although they usually swim at around 11 – 13 kilometres per hour (7 – 8 miles per hour) doing regular tasks. You may think this is still rather fast, especially if you can’t always see them beneath you, but it’s extremely rare for them to hurt humans in the water while they’re frolicking around.
Note for private boaties
If you’re going out on a boat yourself you may be lucky enough to spot dolphins near the surface. But it’s essential that you and your skipper follow guidelines and policies dictated by the Department of Conservation.
From a boat:
- Carefully approach dolphins from their side and slightly to the rear.
- Operate your boat VERY slowly and quietly at ‘no wake’ speed within 300 m.
- Don’t approach a group of dolphins if three or more boats are already within 300 m of the group.
- Manoeuvre your boat carefully. Do not obstruct their path, cut through a group, or separate mothers from calves.
- Never feed dolphins.
If you’re swimming and spot dolphins near you:
- Don’t panic if dolphins take you by surprise and suddenly appear. Avoid loud or sudden noises that could startle them.
- Don’t swim with dolphins when calves are present – get out of the water promptly if this is the case.
- Don’t try to touch the dolphins.
If swimming with dolphins is the aim, we recommend booking with one of the three providers listed below. This way your dolphin interactions are properly managed and you’ll also learn a lot more. You’re more likely to actually see them as well, as the skippers know the best spots. It’s been said that the guides can talk to the dolphins. (Surely this is not a ridiculous local myth?).
If you catch or harm a dolphin by accident
If you accidentally catch, harm or kill a dolphin you must report it as soon as possible to DOC’s emergency hotline 0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468) or the Ministry for Primary Industries (0800 008 333).
If a dolphin is alive you should release it back into the water as quickly and gently as possible. If the dolphin is dead, either release the carcass at sea or preferably bring it to shore for DOC to recover.
Swimming with dolphins – Bay of Islands tour operators
There are only three companies registered to take people on swimming excursions, so we recommend booking ahead, especially in summer.
DOC regulations will determine whether a swim is possible on the day (for example if there are calves present the boat cannot go near the pod). Therefore sometimes it’s not possible to get in the water, and you may have to watch from the boat. In some cases refunds are offered – check with each provider.
Dolphin Discovery (Explore Group)
Travel comfortably on this iconic black and yellow power cat, purpose-built for dolphin viewing with great observation decks and large side opening windows.
There is also safe access to and from the water for all swimmers.
If time permits, the boat also visits majestic Otehei Bay and perhaps extend your island time and return on one of our many later ferries – at no extra cost!
Dolphin Eco Experience (Fullers Great Sights)
The experienced crew on this cruise have specialist knowledge of dolphin behaviour and they have also have a purpose-built dolphin watching deck.
This vessel, called ‘Tutunui’ also has an underwater microphone.
They have a maximum number of 35 passengers on board, so you’re guaranteed an up close and personal experience.
Carino Sailing and Dolphin Adventures
If you’re into sailing, the perfect way to experience both dolphins and the 144 Islands in the Bay, is on this 50ft catamaran.
Carino is the only yacht licensed to swim and view wild dolphins in the Bay.
What to bring to swim with dolphins
Firstly, don’t forget your swimming gear and towel in all the excitement.
Suppliers should provide wetsuits, snorkels and flippers. If you wear prescription lenses there may be some masks provided. Just double check when you book. Lifejackets will be supplied in the event of an emergency.
Sunscreen, sunglasses and a sunhat are a must, even during winter months. We also recommend warmer layers in case the weather changes while out on the boat. Many people also swear by seasickness tablets, just in case.
And importantly, don’t forget the camera!
If you (or more likely your parents) grew up loving the dolphin movie character ‘Flipper’, you’re correct in thinking dolphins are friendly, smart and extremely playful. But they are far more than just this.
Dolphins and whales are warm-blooded mammals (not fish) and pop up for air every now and then, breathing through a blowhole. You’ll be awed by the power (and craziness) of nature when you see this in action for the first time.
Here are some more intriguing dolphin facts:
- Dolphins are as smart as apes and have evolved with really large brains.
- Dolphins are carnivores, and fish, squid and crustaceans are on their daily menu (not human flesh, don’t worry). They consume a heck of a lot of fish each day – no doubt to feed that big brain and fuel their playful activity.
- Their skin houses a thick layer of fat called blubber. The outer layer of skin is constantly replaced, as often as every two hours! This removes unwanted stow-aways like algae and bacteria, and helps them to swim a lot faster.
- We’re sure it’s no surprise that dolphins are very social. They live in groups called ‘pods’ that hunt and play together. In some species, large pods can have 1,000 members or more. They sometimes hunt alone but are much more successful when they hunt as a team. Pods swim around schools of fish forcing them into a tight ball and then take turns snapping up lunch.
- This group strategy doesn’t just benefit their bellies but can also help them look out for predators. Plus female dolphins actively help each other to raise their young, and if a dolphin is injured, the whole pod will protect them. They really are like small communities.
- Dolphins are actually part of the family of whales that includes orcas and pilot whales. (So ‘Killer Whales’ and pilot whales are actually dolphins).
- They are also really affectionate and seem to enjoy hugs and rubs with each other. They have been observed nestling and cuddling their young.
- Dolphins have acute eyesight – hence why they seem to like looking ‘deep’ into swimmer’s eyes and “into the soul” (according to numerous Trip Advisor accounts). They can hear delicate frequencies 10 times the upper limit of adult humans. They have no sense of smell.
A few dolphin myths to dispel
Dolphins are one of the only animals to have sex for pleasure
This particular topic tends to pop up in conversation whenever the subject turns to dolphins (or animal sex!).
The issue here is that volumes have been written on the definition of sexual behaviour in animals, but not so much on the scientific definition of ‘pleasure’ and how on earth to measure this in animals.
You see, dolphins, like humans (and some apes), will engage in sexual behaviour outside of a female’s fertile period. But whether this means dolphins are actually enjoying it is another thing.
So scientists agree that it isn’t enough to simply assume that any sexual act occurring at times when egg fertilisation is impossible must then be understood as occurring for pure pleasure. Plus it’s been noted that dolphins often engage in forceful mounting behaviours that clearly do not involve reproduction, and in fact look a lot like social dominance or simple aggression.
So, is it play? Is it working out hierarchies? Is it about displaying dominance? Is it just learning? There could be many functions of dolphin sex.
But lets be honest, scientists are so very black and white, so we like to think there’s a little bit of truth to the myth. For the sake of the dolphins anyway.
You will never find sharks where you see dolphins
Many wild dolphins around the world are found with shark bites, and young calves are especially vulnerable to shark attacks, with many newborns not surviving their first year.
Dolphins can swim better and more efficiently than sharks, and have even been known to kill sharks when they threaten their young (by ramming their dorsal fins into their bellies – ouch). And indeed, sharks have been known to kill and eat dolphins.
So it’s correct that sharks and dolphins are not friends – and therefore dolphins will try to avoid them. But it would be unwise to assume that the presence of dolphins means that they have managed to elude all sharks in an area, given the evidence of those bite marks!
But rest assured that shark attacks are not a huge threat in New Zealand waters. Phew.
Dolphins have their own language
Dolphins are smart, but are they this smart? This one is hotly debated.
Dolphins are known to have self-identifying whistles and to communicate phrases in clicks and whistles to other dolphins in a pod (mostly at frequncies unavailable to the human ear). Often they will wait until the other is finished before they respond. Rather like a conversation! Which is comparatively impressive in the animal kingdom.
But – is this a language? Of course, this depends on what the term ‘language’ means, and that is rather complex in itself, especially when compared to human communication definitions.
Our languages combine sounds in supremely complex ways, together with the ability to converse about concrete and abstracts things. And although dolphins are obviously communicating more intricately than most other species, at what level, and how we define this, is yet not agreed upon in the scientific community.
So the term ‘language’ should be used loosely in this context – perhaps just in a poetic way.
Dolphins found in the Bay of Islands
You’ll most likely see pods of bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins. You can tell them apart by their size and fins as they bob out the water to play or hunt.
If you’re on a guided tour they’ll be sure to tell you some interesting facts about each, but here’s some information to introduce you to our precious local residents:
The bottlenose is the larger of the two dolphins, with a relatively short beak and a hooked, dorsal fin. They have dark or light grey backs.
The Mäori word for bottlenose dolphin is Terehu.
Newborn length is around 85cm – 1.3m, and an adult is around 1.9 – 3.9m. Females usually reach sexual maturity at 5-13 years but males don’t mature until they are 9-14 years old.
Bottlenose dolphins breed every 3-5 years and calves suckle for around 2-3 years.
Female bottlenose can live up to more than 50 years of age, and males can reach as old as 40-45 years.
The Common Dolphin is smaller and has taller dorsal fins, and distinct, pale side patches.
They can dive down to depths of 280 metres in search of prey and can last under water for up to 8 minutes – but are usually back for a breath between 10 seconds and 2 minutes. They are extremely vocal and show a wide range of acrobatic behaviour, which is exciting to witness.
Their maximum age is estimated to be 22 years.
Orcas, sometimes known as killer whales (a rather unfortunate title!), are actually members of the dolphin family. They are iconic and easy to spot thanks to the black backs and white patterns on their stomachs. When Orca’s hit town, dolphins seem to leave!
Long-finned Pilot Whales
The long-finned pilot whale is also a member of the dolphin family and can be very social, often found coming curiously close to boats in the Bay.
Look out for the Bryde’s Whale as well
Bryde’s (pronounced ‘brooders’) are baleen whales and have a bluish-grey body with white on the underside. They have two blowholes, like all baleen whales – a way to tell them apart from their dolphin friends above with teeth.
A Bryde’s Whale might also identify itself by a large cloud of vapour, and then roll on its side to feed – quite a sight if you’re lucky to spot this.
Dolphins have few natural enemies, aside from (you guessed it) humans.
Pollution, fishing and hunting in some areas of the globe mean many dolphin species around the globe have an uncertain future. In 2006, the Yangtze River dolphin from China was named functionally extinct.
Our dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins, in particular, are extremely vulnerable, and conservation must be taken seriously.
Scientific studies show a 7.5% decrease in the Bay of Islands’ bottlenose dolphin population each year – which is a dreadful statistic. And half of all calves in the bay die in their first year.
What holidaymakers and boaties do out on the water can threaten them without even realising.
If you’re in a private boat or Jet Ski, do not get close, approach too fast, or make heaps of noise. You could be disrupting these creatures and causing unnecessary stress.
Unfortunately, it’s common for boats to drive through the middle of a dolphin pod at high speed (this is called “boat strike”). Either they haven’t actually seen the dolphins or they assume they’ll get out of the way. All too often, dolphins (and orca) get hit by propellers, and some even die from their injuries.
Most dolphins give birth in the summer season. If mothers and their calves are distracted or stressed they simply cannot do the things they need to take care of their babies. For example, calves may not suckle enough in order to grow and thrive.
Bay of Islands waterways are a busy place in summer and the dolphin’s natural environment is greatly disturbed, no matter how playful and relaxed dolphins may look on the surface.
Please be considerate and mindful at all times.
Department of Conservation (DOC) regulations
New Zealanders ‘count their lucky stars’ that they have a government department that aims to educate all of us on conservation issues, and set policies and guidelines on environmental / conservation projects – including the protection of our marine animals.
DOC are constantly assessing the impacts of tourism on dolphins in the Bay of Islands and is using photo-identification in the Bay of Plenty to study population ecology. They are also responsible for managing stranding events.
There are only three operators allowed to take lucky punters out to swim with dolphins, and they all have strict policies to follow.
For more information visit the Department of Conservation website and see their marine guidelines.