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
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.