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Swimming with wild dolphins is a dream of many, and we can say from personal experience that there are not many things in this World that can match its awesomeness. When you think about swimming with dolphins, New Zealand probably isn’t the first country that comes to mind, but it is actually one of the best countries in the world to see many different dolphin species.
Where to see dolphins in New Zealand
Dolphins can be found in waters all around New Zealand, but there are some places that are better than others. Below we’ve listed the areas in the country where dolphin population density is the highest. You might notice that we don’t mention the common dolphin and pilot whale in them. That is because these dolphin species don’t necessarily stick to certain areas and can be found all around New Zealand’s waters.
Without further ado, these are the best places to see dolphins in New Zealand:
1. Bay of Islands
We’ll start up north, in the Bay of Islands. The subtropical climate here makes the water a bit warmer than in most places in New Zealand. That combined with the countless little bays and picturesque island make it the ideal place for all sorts of water related activities, including dolphin watching. A pod of bottlenose dolphins is known to frequently visit the Bay of Islands, but tourists that went swimming with them were “loving them too much”, causing a massive decline in the amount of bottlenose dolphins that visit. Therefore swimming with bottlenose dolphins is now banned in the Bay of Islands. Dolphin watching is however still allowed.
2. Bay of Plenty
The Bay of Plenty is aptly named, because there really is plenty to see here. This area is home to loads of common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and even orcas show themselves here quite regularly. But on top of the dolphin species that you can see here, there is also loads of other marine wildlife like humpback whales, seals, and even turtles.
Another cool thing about the dolphin tours here is that they let you hold onto a bar on the back of the boat while it slowly pulls you along. This way you are a lot more interesting to the dolphins making it very likely for them to swim next to you. That’s something everyone wants to do at least once in their life right?!
3. Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds are the Mecca of marine wildlife in New Zealand. Marine animals use the nearby Cook Strait to migrate from colder to warmer waters, and all the little bays and inlets in the Marlborough Sounds are provide great feeding opportunities along the way. Five different dolphin species are commonly spotted in the inlets, including bottlenose dolphins, dusky dolphins, occasionally Hector’s dolphins and even orcas. Orcas love eating stingrays, and Elaine Bay is one of the places where stingrays come to feed, so if you’re lucky you might see orcas here as well. And even if you don’t see any orcas, then Elaine Bay is still a beautiful place to be.
Kaikoura is famous for its dolphin- and whale watching. It is highly regarded as one of the best locations in the world to spot humpback whales and dusky dolphins because so many of them. Superpods of dusky dolphins reside here year round, with numbers of several hundred to sometimes even over a thousand of them at a time. Imagine swimming in the middle of that!
For whale watching; the best time to see humpback whales is during winter from June to August, although the occassional one can still be spotted in summer. Sperm whales reside here year round, and in summer there is a high chance of seeing orcas and pilot whales pop up in between the whales. A few times a year blue whales are sighted near Kaikoura too. You need to be really lucky in order to be there when that happens, but who knows.
Akaroa often gets overlooked by travellers because it is a bit out of the way, but it definitely deserves a mention when it comes to dolphins. Just like the Marlborough Sounds, Akaroa is full of little inlets and bays are full of food for dolphins and other marine wildlife. The best thing to do here is to take a kayak or paddleboard out on the water in summer, and you’re almost guaranteed that a pod of Hector’s dolphins will come to say hi. Orcas are also frequently seen in summer, as well as penguins and seals. Plenty of reasons to not skip Akaroa we’d say!
6. Curio Bay
Curio Bay is mainly famous for the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguins that come to nest here each year, but Curio Bay and the adjacent Porpoise Bay are also excellent spots to see and swim with Hector’s dolphins. In summer, pods of up to 30 Hector’s dolphins feed in Porpoise Bay almost daily, and they love to play with surfers and swimmers in the water. Last year we took our paddleboards out into the bay, and within minutes a pod of them was playing around us and doing all sorts of acrobatic stunts in the waves.
Fiordland already gets plenty of attention with it being the area where the Milford Sound, the 8th wonder of the world is located, but it is also the home of several pods of bottlenose dolphins. There are about 50 of them in the area and if you take a boat tour in Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound, chances of seeing them swim in front of the boat are very high. As if these sounds weren’t awesome enough already!
Dolphin species in New Zealand
How many dolphin species can be sighted in New Zealand depends on the source. DoC counts nine dolphin species and New Zealand’s own tourism site counts 13 dolphin species in New Zealand. Whichever number is true, only six of those are commonly seen. The other species are so rare that seeing one of them is very unlikely.
As their name suggests, common dolphins are the most commonly found dolphin species in the Atlantic and Pacific and they often swim in superpods of hundreds and sometimes even thousands of them. Common dolphins are found in all waters surrounding New Zealand, but they usually tend to remain a few kilometers off the coast so for a better chance of seeing them you’d have to take a boat out on the water.
Bottlenose dolphins get their name from their short beak that sort of resembles the top of a soda bottle. They are relatively common in New Zealand, and you’re likely to see from the shore as they prefer more shallow waters. Bottlenose dolphins are very “talkative” and make al sorts of squicking and whistling sounds to communicate. They can grow up to 4 meters long, so if you know what you’re looking for spotting them shouldn’t be too hard. Bottlenose dolphins are very friendly to humans they’ll often approach you if you’re in the water close to them.
Dusky dolphins have an even shorter beak than bottlenose dolphins and are about half their size. There are an estimated 15.000 to 20.000 dusky dolphins in New Zealand’s waters, and most of them are found around the South Island as they prefer colder waters. They usually travel in big pods and like to stick to coastal waters. The best thing about dusky dolphins is that they’re the most acrobatic dolphin species out there and they love to put up a show.
Hector’s dolphin are the smallest dolphin species in the world and are only found in New Zealand’s waters. They reach a maximum length of 1.5 meters and are recognosable by their short beak and rounded dorsal fin. Just like the bottlenose dolphin they stick to the shallows and they’re also very playful and friendly to humans. Hector’s dolphin are divided into two subspecies. The first is the South Island’s Hector’s dolphin, which is only found around the South Island and has a population of around 15.000. The second is the Māui dolphin, which is only found along the west coast of the North Island and has an estimated population of only 75, making it not only the smallest but also the most endangered dolphin species in the world.
The orca is the largest member of the dolphin family and can reach lengths up to 9 meters long. Orcas travel long distances and migrate all along New Zealand’s coastline throughout the year, but they are more commonly sighted in the South Island’s waters. There are between 150 and 200 orcas in New Zealand and pods of them usually consist of 6-20 of them. They are higly intelligent hunters that are even capable of killing big marine animals like great white sharks. Although they might look a bit scary, there are no recorded fatal attacks by wild orcas on humans. The single occurance where a human was bitten by a wild orca is widely regarded as the orca confusing the human for something else, so as a human you have nothing to fear from them.
Despite their name suggesting that they are whales, pilot whales are in fact the second-largest species of dolpin that can reach lenths up to 6 meters. There are tens of thousands of pilot whales in New Zealand’s waters, but you’re not likely to see them from the shore as they prefer colder and deeper water, and can even beach in shallow waters. It is thought that their echolocation (how dolphins detects objects in their environment) doesn’t work well in shallow water, causing them to get confused. There have been many mass strandings of pilot whales in New Zealand. This often occurs on Farewell Spit, the Chatham Islands, and most recently a mass stranding of 145 pilot whales on Stewart Island. Tom saw their remains when he was hiking on Stewart Island three months after the stranding and it was a heart-breaking sight.
Best time to see dolphins in New Zealand
Because of New Zealand’s mild climate, you can see dolphins all year round. However, what is considered a mild water temperature for a dolphin is usually considered very fricking cold for people. Especially in winter the waters around New Zealand get very cold and you’ll definitely need a wetsuit to endure for more than a few minutes. So if you want to get into the water with dolphins, we recommend going during summer and the beginning of Autumn, when the waters are warmer.
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How to swim with dolphins
When you get in the water to swim with dolphins, it is important to remember that even though they are super cute and playfull, they are still wild animals. You are entering their natural habitat, and you should try not to disturb that. Keep the following general rules in mind in order to respect them.
- Do not get into the water with dolphins when they have calves, they will do anything to protect them.
- Do not get into the water with dolphins when they are feeding. This causes stress and can make them flee, forcing them to find a new food source.
- Don’t chase them. If they feel like playing they will come to you. Dolphins are very curious though so unless you’re really disturbing them, they’ll most likely come to day hi.
- Don’t touch them, this could make them feel threatened.
To make sure that dolphins and other in incredible animal species in New Zealand stay in existance, it is crucial to keep wildlife ecosystems intact. Always be mindful when you’re out in nature and be respectful of the creatures living in it. And most importantly, when restictions have been put in place, please adhere to them or the animals that you came to see will disappear. The restrictions on swimming with dolphins in Bay of Islands are a prime example of this. For the same reason cage diving with great white sharks became forbidden in New Zealand a few years ago, and many more animal species are endangered and at risk of going completely extinct.