A Whale of a time

When it comes to getting up close and per­sonal with na­ture, an Auck­land Whale & Dol­phin Sa­fari is sure to im­press, writes Sara Litchfield

Go Travel New Zealand - - Auckland -

Is­tarted my Auck­land Whale & Dol­phin Sa­fari in a fa­mil­iar state of ten­ta­tive an­tic­i­pa­tion: I’ve been na­ture-spot­ting be­fore, and some­times na­ture doesn’t get the memo but I needn’t have wor­ried .

The friendly crew knew ex­actly what they were do­ing, and while they couldn’t cat­e­gor­i­cally prom­ise that the whales and dol­phins re­ceived the in­vite, they were con­fi­dent and gen­er­ous enough to prom­ise that you could come again and again free of charge if you didn’t see what you came to the first time.

It’s called a sa­fari for a rea­son: There’s no set route for the 4.5 hour trip and it’s a re­lax­ing de­par­ture from the reg­i­mented itin­er­ary you can ex­pect else­where. To search out some­thing spec­tac­u­lar to see, the ex­pert crew fol­low their noses, a tried and tested means of suc­cess, and they are more than happy to chat through their past experiences.

I checked in for the trip at the New Zealand Mar­itime Mu­seum, and hav­ing some time be­fore we set sail, I took the op­por­tu­nity to go in and have a look. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­plo­ration into the his­tory, chal­lenges, and tri­umphs of sea­far­ing through the ages, from the first Poly­ne­sian pioneers to the Euro­pean set­tlers and to­day’s Amer­ica’s Cup com­peti­tors. There is al­ways an ex­hi­bi­tion on at the mu­seum, and ‘At The Beach’ was a won­der­ful, in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, tak­ing you back in time and away on hol­i­day, on a jour­ney through per­sonal ac­counts and arte­facts of the country’s iconic hol­i­day pas­time. The per­fect way to start the day.

Our group chat­ting ex­cit­edly, we em­barked the Dol­phin Ex­plorer and headed out of the con­ve­nient, city-cen­tre har­bour into the Hau­raki Gulf, home to over 15 species of mam­mal. The ex­pe­ri­ence was made all the more en­joy­able by the reg­u­lar com­men­tary of our skip­per, Andy. As hu­mor­ous as he was in­for­ma­tive, I found out Andy had been in this busi­ness for 25 years, a cap­tain with Auck­land Whale & Dol­phin Sa­fari for 15 of them.

The first of our treats was a bonus for me: A raft of Lit­tle Blue Pen­guins out for a swim. That was ex­cit­ing enough – Lit­tle Blues are my favourite of the 17species of pen­guin, 14 of which hail from New Zealand, and you don’t of­ten get as good a view of them. Lit­tle did I know that the best was yet to come.

As we headed out past Wai­heke and to­wards the Coro­man­del, our cap­tain ex­plained how they find the marine mam­mals – and it’s by watch­ing the birds.

Spot­ting an en­er­getic group of Aus­tralasian Gan­nets, we made straight for them, right into a high-oc­tane en­counter I would never

have ex­pected. The gan­nets were div­ing like fren­zied ar­rows into the sea be­cause they could see dol­phins were hunt­ing there, and that’s where they’d find a good feed. As we drew closer, we saw myr­iad Com­mon Dol­phins, grace­fully dart­ing around their din­ner. To top it all, we were thrilled to see a stately Bryde’s Whale, rolling and div­ing as though he knew we were watch­ing in de­light. It was spec­tac­u­lar, and to give you an idea of scale, the boat was about 20m long, while the whale was 12m to 15m long with a 2m to 3m high blow. We stuck close to the en­thu­si­as­tic din­ers, who didn’t seem to mind our presence at all. And we weren’t vy­ing for a good view with any other tour boats – these things are strictly con­trolled for the good of the marine life, who we learned were more than

ca­pa­ble of recog­nis­ing our ves­sel, and knew we meant no harm.

One of my favourite as­pects of the whole eco- cruise ex­pe­ri­ence was learn­ing about the sa­faris’ con­tri­bu­tion to ac­tive, on­go­ing con­ser­va­tion in the area. Any mem­ber of the crew you spoke to was pas­sion­ate about and com­mit­ted to the work done on and off- board for the pro­tec­tion of the crea­tures we were priv­i­leged to see. Sarah, one of the boat’s marine bi­ol­o­gists, ex­plained how the sa­faris sup­port sus­tain­able pro­grammes for the wel­fare and preser­va­tion of the marine life, in con­junc­tion with DOC, and Massey and Auck­land univer­si­ties, among other in­sti­tu­tions.

The sa­faris give stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to come out on the Ex­plorer when­ever they can and ev­ery trip adds data to on­go­ing re­search. Sight­ings are recorded and con­trib­ute to cu­mu­la­tive ob­ser­va­tions on be­hav­iour and pop­u­la­tion.

We stuck with the dol­phins for the ma­jor­ity of our voy­age, our whale happy to hang out with us at intervals. The sa­fari had been a rav­ing suc­cess as well as a beau­ti­ful boat trip out of the city, and I was thrilled to take away high- qual­ity pic­tures of the day’s events, as well as a ‘ best of’ folder where you could see the rarer and more en­dan­gered species out to play.

My sa­fari didn’t just leave me with bril­liant photos to keep – it en­gen­dered an in­creased re­spect for the in­cred­i­ble in­hab­i­tants of our wa­ters, and an aware­ness of what we can do to pre­serve them, so that oth­ers can en­joy the un­par­al­leled ex­pe­ri­ence of a close en­counter.

All photos cour­tesy of Auck­land Whale & Dol­phin Sa­fari

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