39. New Zealand's dolphin-spotting hotspots
When it comes to unadulterated outdoors and authentic wildlife experiences, New Zealand over delivers: here is No. 39 of our 101 Reasons To Stop Dreaming About New Zealand And Go.
New Zealand’s coast is home to nine species of dolphin including one of the world’s smallest, the Hector’s, which grow to only 1.5 metres in length. Other species include orca and pilot whales, which despite their names are actually two of the largest members of the dolphin family.
But like many of the world’s sea creatures, New Zealand’s dolphins are under threat. As a result, extraordinary care and co-operation goes into making sure marine tourism has minimal impacts on sea life, with Department of Conservation allocating permits under very strict regulations. Tour operators are naturally very conservation-orientated, which in turn fosters a culture of collective responsibility. Their trips offer visitors the chance to learn not only about Aotearoa’s unique ocean ecosystems, but the ways we can work together to protect them. There are many opportunities to see or even swim with dolphins, wild and free. Some may be serendipitous, such as sightings from the inter-island ferries or on a kayak trip expedition, but to ensure your dolphin dreams come true, head to one of these hotspots.
Kaikōura is home to an incredible array of marine life, thanks to unique seafloor geology that stirs up nutrients in the water. Resident sperm whales may be seen all year round, while others such as the southern right, minke, blue and humpback pass through on their seasonal migrations. The coast is home to a large population of sociable and acrobatic dusky dolphins, as well as healthy populations of fur seals/kekeno and majestic sea birds such as albatross and petrels. The folks at Encounter Kaikōura are passionate nature lovers. Their waterfront cafe and gift store is a delightful departure point for one of their small-group boat tours focused on dolphins and albatross but naturally featuring so much more. Their Dolphin Encounter tour includes the option to swim with dolphins. Kaikōura lies between Picton and Christchurch/Ōtautahi on a spectacular stretch of State Highway 1 and on the Coastal Pacific scenic railway.
Akaroa makes a fabulous day out from Christchurch, worth doing for the super-scenic road trip alone. Part of Banks Peninsula, and comprised of the remains of two ancient volcanoes, it’s a lumpy landform of high ridges dropping away to countless idyllic bays. A series of small settlements cluster around the beautiful harbour at its heart. The largest of these is Akaroa village, its pretty streets lined with cute cottages and colourful gardens. Boutique shops and cafes are enough to keep you busy, but fans of history and nature will also love it here. The waters around Akaroa are home to Hector’s dolphins as well as fur seals, penguins and other seabirds. Leaving from the village wharf, Black Cat Cruises run brilliant two-hour nature tours taking in the harbour’s sights and wildlife. To get even closer, consider signing up for its highly rated, small-group dolphin-swimming trips.
Bay of Plenty
The Bay of Plenty/Te Moananui Ā Toi is a coastal paradise of beaches and islands offering everything from surfing and sunbathing to kayaking and wildlife tours. Close to downtown Tauranga, Mt Maunganui/Mauao and nearby seaside settlements offer salty, sun-drenched holidays complete with boat trips, big and small. Tauranga Harbour is the departure point for The Bay Explorer’s popular five-hour dolphin and wildlife cruise. Common and bottlenose dolphins can be relied on to ride the boat’s bow-wave, to the great entertainment of those onboard. Other captivating wildlife that may be seen includes fur seals, penguins, sunfish, sharks, and even turtles and whales. A mid-trip island stopover offers a chance to kayak, stand-up paddleboard or swim.