A freedom like yours..
Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
394Trip End Ongoing
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Dusky Dolphins - Horace Dobbs
They say that once you've looked into the eye of a dolphin, you're never the same.
I had set the alarm for 4.50am which never woke me up. I was already awake. A cocktail of reasons really - excitement being the major factor, though there was a little apprehension too as the unknown always imposes. Also, it was a particularly cold evening and when I say that, I mean that last night was the coldest night I have experienced in New Zealand so far. By far. I left the others and went to bed around 10pm last night for a good rest before the early start and remember noticing in particular what a crystal clear night it was. The moon was as bright as ever and all the stars were visible. The Southern Cross looked especially clear and I paused for a few moments to admire it - it seems to make you do that. The night was beautifully clear and a fantastic morning was to follow. Until I awoke around 3.30am to go to the toilet. The cold deeply concerned me. When I awoke, my nose was freezing and my ears must have been red around the edges. When I slid the door of the van open it hit me hard with a real sting and running to the toilet in my shorts give me enough leg freeze to last the rest of the early hours. So by 4.50am I was already awake trying desperately not to let any outside air in to the tiny gaps around my neck.
I got up and banged on the door of young Chicken who surfaced a few minutes later. After a quick preparation and swift transfer of the invalid into the other mobile sleeping quarters it was time for off. I remember noticing that there was a light coating of frost on the windows of the van. It was still dark and we couldn't feel our fingers and toes as I drove down the esplanade to the check in point. All I kept thinking was how cold it was. There was a light frost on the ground too and it was early enough for the moon to shine bright before the slightest hint of sunrise. To me, it felt like the middle of winter in England. What concerned us more, was that in a few moments we were about to put on a wetsuit, hop on a boat which would take us out to sea and then simply jump in. The sanity of the idea wasn't adding up and we considered discussing our concerns with the crew.
When we checked in though we were clearly mistaken. There was no cancellation like we had assumed, just a point in the direction of the wetsuit area to get changed. After a short safety briefing we jumped on a small bus which drove us down to South Bay and on to a small open boat. Down at the jetty it was even colder as the frosty breeze from the Pacific started to whistle through our toes and fingers. We were a bit blank and a bit numb I have to say.
Minutes later we were chugging at some speed heading down the coast in that little boat. The next ten minutes or so of this journey took our minds completely off the stings and the lifelessness of our toes and fingers as we very gradually watched the sun rise from beneath the horizon. It warmed us from the inside out and the thought of seeing some dolphins at this point got us really excited. It wasn't long before the skipper announced that he had seen a pod just off to the right in the distance. Before we knew it we were sat on the edge of the boat with our masks firmly attached to our face and snorkels to the side ready to become our best friend. It's bizarre really but at that moment all the apprehension had gone away. Only the small few of us on that boat would understand. Seconds later we were sat in awe and amazement, surrounded by playful pods of dusky dolphins jumping all around us. They were beautifully silhouetted against the morning sun which was sat barely on the horizon like a dimly lit bulb. It was the most surreal, indescribable moment and was soon to become a life-changing event. As soon as the skipper sounded the horn to signal that the propellers had stopped rotating, we were in. In a flash!
We had been told on our briefing before we left the shore of a few important tips that would encourage interest in the dolphins - after all it was up to us to entertain the dolphins not the other way round. See, these beauties are totally wild and completely free. Free to come and go as they please, so it was up to us to be 'worth bothering with'. Apparently, it's often a successful encounter if the diver becomes as animated as possible whilst making the most interesting noises - this is a sure way to generate a little interest. Another suggested method of engagement is to swim round in circles with them whilst maintaining eye contact. For those that can take a deep breath and dive deep beneath the surface, this apparently encourages one or two of them to follow you down and play beneath the water. So with the suggestions in mind it was up to us to live our dreams.
Once again, this is another one of those hard to describe moments. In fact this one is close to impossible. All I can say to anyone reading this, is if you EVER get the opportunity to experience this wonderful, life-changing moment, however hesitant, do it. Just do it.
Within a few seconds of swimming with my face under the water one came out of nowhere, shooting straight past my head and off behind me. My heart skipped a beat and the adrenaline shot round my whole body, making my eyes grow to the size of ping-pong balls. Then came another from over my shoulder while another passed directly beneath me almost brushing against my belly. My breathing was as fast as I've ever known it - as if I couldn't get enough air, though this wasn't out of panic or stress - this was out of excitement and utter happiness. Moments later I engaged with one. It swam across me from my left side right in front of my face, so close I could have reached out and touched it. I looked it right in the eye and began to swim furiously around in circles in a desperate attempt to follow it and make the moment last as long as possible. It stayed with me and allowed me to catch up slightly, all the time inching just that little bit ahead. It was playing with me, toying with me and making me work - its eye on me the whole time as mine was on his. After a few moments he let me off the hook and shot in to the darkness deep beneath me. I'll never forget it. Ever.
That same magic happened with another three dolphins before I tried my hand at diving. My timing was way off though as I never actually managed to attract any company. I just ended up getting a little nervous, after a few kicks of my fins took me in to waters deeper and darker than I would care to venture into alone. I ventured back to the surface even quicker!
About twenty minutes later we relocated along the coast and took a second dive. After another fifteen minutes or so of magic circles the huge pod that we were playing with had sadly left us. It was quite a funny sight to see really. I'd taken off my mask for a moment and was just sat bobbing up and down in the water. The majority of the pod had moved on and there were just a couple left swimming amongst us saying their goodbyes. To watch eight or nine people frantically kicking with their faces submerged in the water, splashing around like distressed lunatics making the most ridiculous noises to impress this highly intelligent species was very entertaining to say the least. I'm almost certain I heard one guy singing Barry Manilow. I even chuckled to myself at myself, as mine was hardly an improvement. It sounded like David Brent's frantic dancing noises being grunted out through my snorkel beneath the waves. Classic!
A couple of minutes later and we were in for the surprise of our lives. We had started to swim back to the boat for another relocation when out of nowhere we were totally bombarded. For whatever reason, they had decided to come back with the rest of the pod and pass right 'through' us. The next few minutes were spent in complete, speechless, awe and I believe it will stay in our hearts and souls forever - it certainly will mine. It was simply one after the other, after the other, after the other - displaying their ever energetic twisting, turning, toying and trickery. As one glided past me right before my eyes, another would be swimming over my head as yet another passed closely under my belly. At one point I had three taking me on the 'circle tour' before another turned me swiftly the other way as more and more flew over and under me at high speed. They were literally everywhere and I just didn't know where to look. It was so overwhelming I had tears in my eyes and had to surface briefly to clear my mask. As I swam alongside each one and looked deep in to their eyes, I remember thinking 'what are you thinking my friend?' as I shouted out pathetic phrases that you would use when handling a puppy for the first time.
The 'circle swim' with each one was so personal and so overwhelming it almost became hard to take. The look in each of their eyes is so warm, so sincere and so magical. There is without doubt, something in there that is far, far bigger than the physical size of these animals. I don't know if it's me or not but I swear they were smiling - why wouldn't they be? My dog used to smile and I used to see it. This was exactly the same.
I even managed a brief, successful, vertical dive where one particular sympathetic chap accompanied me for a short while before moving on, leaving me to enjoy more circles with his friends. They were weaving in and around and amongst us, playing with us, meeting us and befriending us. And it was on their terms. We were in their world and I felt like a second-class citizen, completely insignificant. I felt so extremely privileged to be there, so lucky, and I knew it. And I loved every minute of it!
Funny really how the very thing that concerned us the most turned out to be the last thing on our minds - the extreme cold. We hardly noticed it at all.
Back on the boat, Chicken and I just stared out in silence at the magical waters of Kaikoura as we jetted back to South Bay. We had started to share our personal account of the experience but were quickly stopped by the welling in our eyes. It was an incredibly emotional time and we left it unsaid. Fortunately, the elegant grace of the huge sea albatross' took our attention instead. The skipper had informed us how lucky we were that the pod came back 'through us'. Apparently it doesn't happen very often. Life-changing experiences seldom do I suppose.