Black water rafting, or diving with wild dolphins? While nearing the end of our travels in New Zealand, my friends and I wanted to splurge on one last adventure. The previous weeks were spent hiking, sea kayaking (photo below), visiting a Kiwi sanctuary, and luging down a mountain (which ended up being a hilarious video). We had planned on ending the trip with black water rafting— riding an inner tube through a series of underground rapids through caves coated with glowworms. However, when we visited a tourist center in whatever town we had stopped in, we found a deal for diving with wild dolphins that made us reconsider our rafting goals.
We took a break to visit the public restroom next door and filled our water jug from the sink (how do you think we afforded all of these adventures? Had to cut costs). It was in the restroom where we finally agreed that swimming with wild dolphins would be more meaningful than rafting, so we reserved three spots on the next boat. Excited, we headed to the woods, set up our tent, and rested for the upcoming journey.
The morning sun rose, but we couldn’t see it. We unzipped our tent expecting to see blue skies and sunrays. Instead, the forest was covered by shadows from dark, ominous clouds, warning that they’d drench us if we tried to do anything fun. The clouds lived up to their promise. New Zealand’s South island had already proven to be bitterly cold. Still we bundled up, packed our tent, and drove to the coastal city of Picton to catch our boat, because you know… non-refundable tickets.
We changed into our wetsuits and met the diving staff. They said we’d still try to find the dolphins, despite the frigid storm outside. We loaded up on the boat and set sail into the bay, quickly realizing the downside to searching for wild dolphins. They’re wild, with no guarantees that we’d see any, and certainly no guarantee that they’d stick around to swim with us… or that they’d abstain from grabbing our feet and dragging us to the bottom of the ocean for ransom.
I respected the guide company. They would not tolerate feeding the animals to attract them. To keep it a truly wild experience, they emphasized the importance of not interfering with natural behavior. Even in the cold rainstorm, our spirits were high as we sailed out to sea.
Our high spirits lowered as the hours passed. I fell asleep for at least 30 minutes. The sky was cloudy and there were no dolphins in sight. Just rain. It took hours, but we finally found a pod of spunky Dusky dolphins, flipping out of the water as our boat approached. We ran to the deck, preparing to jump in and frolic. How silly we were.
“Sorry folks,” said our instructor in an adorable accent. “These dolphins are displaying, which means they are mating.” I had to respect the call, but it was a bummer. Within 30 minutes, though, we had found another pod, and we finally got the thumbs up to jump into the icy water and interact.
“These are inquisitive creatures, and they are attracted to sound,” the instructor said. “Once you hit the water, begin humming and singing. You’ll have a better chance of one swimming up to you.”
My friends and I jumped into the water, and not only could I not hum, but I couldn’t breathe. Yes, I had a snorkel, but I did not have a tolerance for 60-degree water. I swam against the waves to generate body heat, looking below me into the deep nothingness. Once I caught my breath, I began humming, and eventually, a pair of curious, silver torpedoes gracefully flowed below me. It was actually quite startling— straining my eyes to see something, anything, in the blue depths, when suddenly something big and fast appeared out of nowhere. It seems instinctual, to get a frightening boost of adrenaline when we see that, as if it’s a nod to our prehistoric ancestors who actually were prey animals to larger, faster creatures.
The dolphins were not nearly as interested in me as I was in them, because they swam away after about 10 seconds while I longed for more. One returned, and swam beautiful, uneven loops around me before disappearing again. I could barely follow the close, fast movements with my eyes, but my friend Paul got a great video of the acrobatics with my GoPro. The dolphin had an entire ocean to explore, but it chose to inspect me, top to bottom, before vanishing like an ocean spirit.
There is something transcendental about connecting with a wild animal that wants to interact. I’m not talking about spotting an elusive creature before it sprints away, as special as that is. I’m talking about purposefully throwing yourself into an underwater universe where you don’t belong, and being welcomed by intellectual ambassadors of the ocean. Captain Paul Watson wrote a brilliant essay on cetacean intelligence, referencing a dolphin’s ability to “see into a person’s body, their blood flow, and the workings of the organs.” He wrote that by using echolocation, “a dolphin can see a tumor inside the body of another dolphin. Even more amazing is that emotional states of others can be instantly detected. These are species incapable of deception, whose emotional states are open books to each other.”
Many animals read energy. Humans do, but many of us have lost our touch as modern society distances us from the natural world. I like to think that the dolphins were attracted to my energy, understanding that my curiosity matched theirs. Or maybe I wasn’t interesting at all, hence why the pod didn’t stick around for very long. I’ll never know, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to wonder.
P.S., we were shivering our butts off the entire trip back to land. Once we were wet, we couldn’t go back inside the boat’s cabin. The only redemption was a python-sized, warm water hose on the deck. We passed it around to stick into our wetsuits, and man, was that a treat. It’s the odd things in life that make the best memories.