“You can either get a wetsuit on and swim with the dolphins or work this shift.” That was the dilemma struck upon me after a warm welcome through the front door into the E-Ko Tours office by my new employer Paul who is also skipper for this morning.
It was 0830 in the morning, the answer was obvious, a no brainier. Excitement of the unknown was ahead with a new job working in the Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui), witnessing and guiding an array of biodiversity to eager passengers onboard.
So, with all the excited anticipation of this new job, I mulled over the question in my head and gave the following response after a 2 second delay in asking, “I think it is best I work this one”, reluctantly came out of my mouth. I was shocked in the courteous yet declined manner I said this as the inner child longed to swim with these wild and free majestic creatures, a natural wonder upon themselves. Alas a part of me feels I have to make a good first impression and simply wait and not regret that decision I made for myself.
Dejection aside, the present situation is day one on the job as a Guide for E-Ko tours. Another hearty welcome comes from Nat (office manager) and Gaia (guide), and then the swimmers and viewers arrive, checking in, filling forms and slipping on their wetsuits followed by an introductory video supplying the general expectations and information of the experience ahead.
After an amusing and informative mask and snorkel brief (“don’t forget to sing pip pip pip…” seems to be the recollection of this event), off we go onboard Delphinus a very accommodating catamaran.
I had a kind of double take here at this point, even though I was in training this was a very surreal realisation that I am about to embark on spotting and searching for wild dolphins!!! Where do you get to do this as a job? Well in Picton you sure do.
We departed the modest harbour and advanced into the majestic Queen Charlotte Sound with eager eyes scanning the horizon for those marine mammals. After just over an hour of searching and heading towards Kaipapa Bay, we came across a good-sized pod of bottlenose dolphins.
In short, the staff assess the current animal behaviour of the dolphins which then gives either a “no” or “go ahead” to prepare the beck deck for a swim.
So, things were getting a bit more real, a materialisation of the expectation formulating into a more visceral form where a pod of many blow holing bottlenose dolphins were farming along the shoreline southwards down the Sound towards us.
A swim brief was performed by Gaia and the passengers started to prepare themselves for the experience.
The following is a simplistic run-down of dream to reality:
The more aquatic based passengers in wetsuits and masks progressed to the back deck ready for the signal. The skipper manoeuvred Delphinus accordingly, which is a bit of a skilful feat in itself where experience, strategy and heaps of patience is required as the bottlenose dolphins have a different behaviour to the others, which I will divulge in a later blog.
The sound of the horn three times sounds, the blue hazard rope is withdrawn and they’re off!
Swimmers descended quickly yet smoothly into the water, clear of the boat, singing “melodic” tunes - well more of a loose term there. The idea is to sing curious noises through a snorkel of 2.5 cm in diameter as well as breathing deeply. Sounds tough, but breathing is a natural subconscious movement when a pipe is in your mouth. The noise is required to entice the dolphins to come closer OR is it simply for the entertainment of the staff? The jury is still out on this.
Now the suspense, as there’s a wait for the bottlenose. In short this is a point drop where a lot of tactical manoeuvring is piloted by the skipper for the swimmers to optimise their experience with the wild dolphins coming forth in droves.
The swimmers are in the water about 10m from the shoreline and clear of Delphinus. They look up at me and Gaia. Gaia is kind of jumping in energetic flows, shouting and pointing where the bottlenose are coming from. The swimmers look ahead in puzzlement, where there’s a mysterious wave ahead, more a barrage of bursts of air are cascading closer.
Different perspectives from the Delphinus to the swimmers in the water.
That wave is surging forward, I feel the dolphins are smiling from what I can see (I’m sure the binoculars around my neck will confirm this) as they melodically breach the surface in a forward loping motion, puffing mists of air skyward where the sound becomes louder as proximity closes.
The rush comes, they’re here! The swimmers seem a bit bewildered, where to look?
We shout the obvious “look down in the water! They’re coming through underneath you!!” my throat is fully optimised in use, something I will later learn to preserve on future swims.
The swimmers’ heads are all fixed down in the water scanning the shoreline for the dolphins.
Then I hear the first squeal of excitement, this seems to resonate in the group. I presume they have engaged with the dolphin parade coming forth where streams of Bottles pass through, clicking and whistling in harmonious communication with each other, somehow missing the floating human debris.
After the wave of dolphins subsided, the startled eyes of jubilation can be seen by the swimmers through their masks, where I can still sharply remember seeing the absolute amazement of one French passengers’ experience, ‘Startled’ could sum it up.
Back to the job…. right…..“Quick, quick, quick!”, we usher them back onto the boat for another drop.
This indescribable experience continues……