New Zealand- Chapter Two- The Banks Peninsula & Hector’s Dolphins

After an glorious early morning sunrise on the beach near my campsite right outside of Christchurch, I headed south toward the Banks Peninsula.

The Banks Peninsula is named after Joseph Banks, the botanist on James Cook and the Endeavor’s 1769 navigation of New Zealand. The interesting thing about that voyage and this peninsula is that Cook was not able to identify this volcanically created piece of land as the peninsula it is, instead he included it in his map as a small island. Banks has his name attached to quite a number of places along the course of Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavor. His drawings and clippings introduced a number of plants and animals to the people of Europe, and started the intrigue over these far away outposts.

Over 40 years later, the peninsula again played a role in New Zealand’s history. Early British colonial & commercial ambitions (whaling) were taking a toll on the early Maori population. A capitan in the British Army used a Maori guide to help kidnap a rival chief. It was this incident, which British royalty found very troubling, that encouraged them to initiate the treaty talks that lead to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It was this document that lead to formation of the modern nation of New Zealand.


In the period in between, French Merchants decided the area would be an ideal place for a settlement. In the years it took for them to sail to Europe and return with willing colonists, the Treaty of Waitangi had allowed the British to lay claim to the whole of the two islands.

Today, the main settlement on the Banks Peninsula, Akaroa, shows off it French heritage mostly in place names. The town’s main purpose today is to serve as a base for harbor and wildlife cruises. I had booked a place on a cruise where I was supposed to swim with the world’s smallest ocean dolphin, The Hector’s Dolphin.

The drive out to Akaora from Christchurch first passes through flat farmland, then an area of tidal marshes, and finally up and over the first mountain ridge and into the crater that forms the harbor area. After the initial sunrise, the day had turned cold and grey, and I feared that these conditions would make the already chilly waters of the Pacific even more difficult to take. As I descended the winding road into Akaroa, the sky cleared and, by the time I made it to the town, it was brilliantly sunny. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip where I was amazed at how quickly the weather in New Zealand can change.

Before the dolphin cruise headed out, I was able to explore pretty little Akaroa. The town was fairly sleepy on this Sunday morning in the off-peak tourist season, but it wasn’t hard to imagine how crowded these shoppes and cafes would be from December through February.

The tour operator running my dolphin cruise was Black Cat Cruises, which has one of the best reputations in the world for their eco-conscious approach to tourism. Founded in 1985, this company’s approach to our voyage was something I had never seen before, but would become accustomed to from so many of the other Kiwi tour operators I would use.

First of all, we were given a practical education on what to expect from the dolphins and how to interact with them in a way that was healthy for them. I commented to the guide & skipper how this type of excursion would make me nervous in many other parts of the world. In New Zealand, however, the Kiwis relationship and respect of their natural environment assured me that this sensitive nature activity would be done the right way.

Laura giving us the lowdown on the dolphins

On the way out, the guide Laura & skipper Julian, gave us plenty of useful information on the formation of the harbor, the other sea creatures we would encounter, and, of course, the Hector’s Dolphins. As mentioned, Hector’s Dolphins are the world’s smallest ocean dolphin. Adults range from 4 to 6 feet log, and they typically weigh between 80 and 120 pounds. They are endangered, and their numbers have been cut but almost 70% since 1970, and most of the decline in their population can be attributed to commercial fishing nets. In recent years, a marine sanctuary has been formed off the coast of New Zealand and the most deadly types of fishing nets, particularly gill and drift nets, have been banned in the areas inhabited but dolphins and other endangered marine species.

The Harbor Mouth

The plan was for us to visit an area right outside the mouth of the harbor where the dolphins have been known to frequent and to see if we could find a group that would engage us. I deeply admire Black Cat’s refusal to offer the dolphins any kind of enticement that would change the way that they naturally interact with their environment. We were told that unless they showed curiosity, we wouldn’t even get in the water. I can’t help but think that in many countries without such a forward thinking approach, this type of consideration would not be given.

We spotted our first dolphins just a few minutes after leaving the harbor. Being small, they aren’t easy to find. They do have a signature black, rounded dorsal fin, so once spotted, it’s fairly easy to keep them in sight.

 The first few times we spotted them, it was either a single dolphin or a group of two and none seemed particularly interested. After close to an hour of close calls, we saw a group of what we thought was four (but turned out to be six) circling us from a distance. They began getting closer and eventually started engaging the boat by swimming to and fro under the bottom of the boat. After about five minutes of this, out guides said we should start getting in the water to see if they would engage the swimmers.

We were in 5mm thick wet suits, and most of my fellow swimmers thought the water was quite cold. I have a little more ‘natural padding’ than most of them did, and once the water that circulated in the suit began to warm up from my body heat, I was quite comfortable. Once in the water, the dolphins were fairly cautious around us, but as soon as we started to make the noises we had been instructed to make in advance by our guides (singing into our snorkels with the open end in the water or tapping the solid plastic of the snorkel on the plastic lenses of out goggles) the dolphins began to swim amongst us. 

We had been told not to touch them, since even a fingernail could scratch their delicate skin. Even without making physical contact, it was an amazing experience. Once I got comfortable with floating in the sea, I used the plastic to snorkel lens method to make noise (I didn’t want to sing- that might have scared them away). The tapping method worked brilliantly, since within two minutes of my starting it, two of the tiny, but very speedy dolphins swam directly toward me. I knew in the back of my mind, as they raced toward me, that they would not hurt me, but it is still a bit alarming to find yourself in the water with a marine mammal approaching you at a pretty good clip. At the very last minute, they zoomed underneath my feet. They repeated this playful behavior as long as I continued the tapping.

The group we swam with

After about 20 minutes, they seemed to lose intrest and one by one began to fade away. We were all thrilled with the interaction, and our crew reminded us that not all the cruises get so lucky. We rode back into the beautiful harbor in the early afternoon sunshine, and it was easy to tell, just from looking at everyone how touched we all were by the whole experience. I stood out on the back of the boat by myself for a while, goosebumps dotting my skin and reminding myself that this was only the second day of the trip. I couldn’t imagine at that time, that they would be anything else on the trip that could rival what I had just done. 

The pier in Akaroa

I knew I had a fairly long drive ahead of me since I needed to be in Lake Tekapo Village early in the morning for a scenic flight I had booked. When I left Akaroa, I had intended to take the main highway off the peninsula and head straight south toward my next destination, but as I turned a corner I saw a sign for the the Summit Road. I could tell just by looking at the path of the road on a map, that it was likely to be a slow and winding road, but also very scenic. I was right about that.


The road meandered over the hillsides, giving views into both the splendid harbor on which Akaroa sits, but also the many smaller inlets and harbors that comprise the north side of the peninsula. I knew when I turned on to the road that it was going to take longer to drive, so I should try to stay on task and limit the number of times I got out to take pictures. That didn’t work.

It seemed like I had to catch my breath at almost every turn. I kicked myself for not having enough time to take the side roads into the sheltered coves of the north side of the island. Still, I enjoyed the drive immensely, and was not at all disappointed to have to do much of the drive to much of the rest of the way to my campsite in the cute little town of Geraldine in the dark.

I was rewarded with a beautiful sunset as it dipped into the western horizon behind the majesty of the Southern Alps. It had been an incredibly satisfying day, and the fact that it was only my second day gave me goosebumps for the rest of the evening.

NEXT: Chapter Three- Washed Out at Tekapo
Link to the rest of my Day Two photo gallery on Flickr, Facebook

Black Cat Cruises (One of my highest recommendations in all of New Zealand)

Article about Hector’s Dolphins (from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation)

The Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust

Town of Akaroa’s Website

The New Zealand 2012 Series-
New Zealand 2012 by the Numbers
Chapter One: Christchurch in One Word: Broken
Photo Essay- Sunrise outside Christchurch
Chapter Two- The Banks Peninsula & Hector’s Dolphins
Chapter Three- Washed Out at Tekapo
Photo Essay- Moeraki Boulders Sunrise
Chapter Four- The Secret of Dunedin
Photo Essay- Speight’s Brewery Tour, Dunedin
Chapter Five- The Otago Peninsula
Photo Essay- Otago Peninsula Wildlife
Chapter Six- The Edge of the World in the Catlins
Chapter Seven- Southern Scenic Route
Chapter Eight- Cruising Doubtful Sound (Pt.1)
Photo Essay- Lake Manapouri Cruise

2 Responses to “New Zealand- Chapter Two- The Banks Peninsula & Hector’s Dolphins”

  1. Ryan O says:

    Are you planning on doing a play by play of every day? Love the historical background information, and will be looking for your next installment. Thanks for sharing!


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