I told my brother I wanted to get a picture of a dolphin jumping out of the water on my trip to Kaikoura, New Zealand. He mocked me and said it was a million to one shot.
But, as it turns out, the dolphins that dwell near the coast of Kaikoura are dusky dolphins, and they happen to be among the most playful and curious species of dolphin on Earth. That means lots of jumping, and lots of incredible photos.
The best part, though, is that you can swim beside them while they play!
My wife and I arrived at the offices of Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura around dawn. We were fitted for wetsuits and snorkels and given an orientation about how to interact with the dolphins. Touching is strictly forbidden, no matter how close the animals might come to you. If a dolphin starts swimming around you in a circle, it’s a friendly challenge to a race. The object is to swim in a corkscrew pattern and see who can get deeper faster. No use in putting your pride on the line, though: the dolphin always wins.
We were herded onto a boat with our fellow wetsuit-ensconced tourists and we motored out into the choppy water. With any wild animal encounter there are never any guarantees, of course. Sometimes it might take an hour or two before any dolphins are spotted. Sometimes the dolphins aren’t spotted at all.
We were emotionally prepared for a long wait, and possibly some disappointment. But within ten minutes…HELLA DOLPHINS!
We all awkwardly rushed to jump into the water. The proper term for a group of dolphins is a “pod” but what we encountered could more fittingly be described as a “swarm.”
Our guide taught us a trick for getting the dolphins’ attention: singing high-pitched songs into our snorkels. My wife and I had recently watched an episode of South Park in which Eric Cartman sings a song called “Taco Flavored Kisses,” so that’s the song we used to sonically seduce the approaching cetaceans.
“Taco taco! Burrito burrito! Taco taco!”
Apparently most sea mammals are hardcore South Park fans, because we were suddenly surrounded by what we found out later was over 400 dolphins! They swam past us, below us, around us… They were easily within arm’s reach, but per our instructions I resisted the temptation to hug them. Sure enough, I was challenged to a few corkscrew races and sure enough I was soundly defeated each time.
The delight of a dolphin looking you directly in the eye hits you in a primal place–it’s likely some innate evolutionary nostalgia from a time before our species crawled out of the ocean. To the dolphins, we’re just a passing curiosity. But to us humans there’s a broken bond that we’re desperate to repair. There is giggling and smiling involved, but it’s not simple “fun.” It’s a sensation of metaphysical fulfillment.
(Set to the tune of “Taco taco! Burrito burrito!”)
After a few minutes the pod moved on and we all paddled back to the boat. We headed further off shore, leapt into the water again, and kept singing as the dolphins swam by once more.
As much as we couldn’t get enough of being in the water with the pod, being on the boat after the swim was almost as enjoyable. The dolphins circled and inspected us. Mother dolphins swam by with their babies. And they all leapt and flipped and flopped and splashed in every direction. It was tough to get a picture of a dolphin NOT jumping in the air! (Our guide had a laugh when I told her about my brother’s photographic pessimism.)
Eventually the pod moved on and our boat returned to shore. We chatted with our guide on the ride back and I asked her if, after working for the company for several years, she ever grew bored with her job. She said she still gets excited every day.
As the dolphins faded into the distance, I contemplated moving to Kaikoura to chase a new career as a dolphin guide in an attempt to fulfill my soul’s desire to regularly commune with these beautiful, miraculous creatures and find an illusive inner peace…but first I would need to show my photos to my brother.
Suck it, Eric.