The first pod of dolphins swimming by our boat is rather a disappointment. As far as a group of rare Hector’s dolphins can be a disappointment on a wildlife cruise, of course. What I mean is, they don’t stay to play. Our captain explains the logical reason: they’re feeding. Even for curious and fun-loving dolphins, food comes first.
So we keep our eyes on the horizon for some more wildlife, while the boat makes its way through the former volcanic crater that forms the Banks Peninsula. More or less in the middle of it is Akaroa, the starting point of our wildlife cruise.
Akaroa is about a two-hour drive away from Christchurch, where I stayed together with my aunt for a few relaxed days before the start of our South Island bus tour in late January. Akaroa is a favourite day-trip destination, mainly because of its wildlife. The aforementioned Hector’ dolphins are the rarest – and smallest – dolphin type in the world. They only live around the South Island of New Zealand. Hector’s Dolphins are also highly endangered, which makes it super special to see them in the wild.
How to search for Hector’s dolphins
While there are several tourist boats out on the water, they are not allowed to attract the dolphins in any way. However, there are other ways of making sure we still encounter some on the cruise.
Akaroa Dolphins, the local, family-run company we’re with, uses dolphin dogs. They are specially trained to recognize and react to the sounds dolphins make underwater. Inaudible to the human ear, but certainly not to that of a dog. So whenever dolphins are around, the dog gets excited, thus alerting its humans to the animals’ presence. Plus, they make really cute photo motives for the tourists whenever there’s no wildlife to be seen!
Finally: a playful pod of Hector’s dolphins
The next pod we meet is apparently already done feeding because these guys decide to hang around. They spend some time swimming around and underneath our boat, to the delight of everyone on board. A bunch of excited tourists – and one excited dog – hang over the railings on both sides to not miss a single time these fascinating animals break the surface.
When they eventually disappear and go their ways, we all feel as though we thoroughly got our money’s worth out of this trip – and it’s far from over yet.
Other wildlife to see on an Akaroa wildlife cruise
The dolphins aren’t the only locals to be spotted in these waters. Already early on during our tour, we made out some little blue penguins swimming not too far from us. And now that we leave the bay and reach the outside of Bank’s Peninsula, we also encounter plenty of seals. Most of them are babies. The mother leaves them on the shore while she goes out hunting for food, sometimes for hours at a time. Cue lots of happy squeals from the people on board!
The volcanic origins of the Banks Peninsula
When there’s really no animal to see for once, we have time to take in the impressive landscape. The Banks Peninsula is the result of a volcanic eruption many many millennia past. If you look at it from above on photographs, you can still see the volcanic shape.
Close up, the rock is raw and you can see its many layers. Our captain points out a few interesting landmarks, such as the hole in the rock and the cave dubbed „Gateway to Middle Earth”. We are in New Zealand, after all.
A good two hours after we were welcomed on board with a glass of local wine (or juice, if you prefer), we make our way back to Akaroa Harbour. Just before reaching it, the crew hands out handmake cookies. Yes, Akaroa Dolphins really does look after you. We munch our biscuits while chatting away with fellow passengers about how lucky we were to see all that wildlife. And how amazing this place is in general. One I’m certainly not going to forget anytime soon.
Hector’s dolphins facts
You can only find Hector’s dolphins around New Zealand’s South Island. They mostly live in inshore waters like those of the Banks Peninsula. The grey, about 1.4 m long dolphins are distinguished by their black and white markings as well as a rounded fin. With a population of around 10 000 animals, they are classified as nationally endangered.
They were named after the curator of the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, Sir James Hector, who lived in the second half of the 19th Century. Back then, he was one of the most influential scientists New Zealand had and the first to examine a specimen of this dolphin.
Akaroa Dolphin Tours
Several tour companies offer wildlife cruises from Akaroa Harbour. They usually last about two hours and besides the dolphins, there’s the chance to see seals, little blue penguins and different birds. We went with Akaroa Dolphins, a local family business, who did a great job to make everyone feel welcome on board, including handing out local wine and fresh biscuits.
Another popular tour option in Akaroa is to swim with dolphins, which is mostly offered by the same companies that also do the cruises.
Akaroa is a small town on the Banks Peninsula. Its population swells enormously in the summer due to the many holidayers. But it’s also perfect for day trips from Auckland. The drive Akaroa to Christchurch is about 2 hours. There is a shuttle bus leaving from the bus terminal in central Christchurch, which includes a few photo-stops on the way.
In town, there’s some cute shops and restaurants, as well as an interesting little museum on the history of the Banks Peninsula. The main attractions, however, are the beach and wildlife. You can also take one of the many walking tracks that start here.
Have you been on wildlife cruises anywhere in the world? What animals did you see? Share your highlights in the comments!