AKAROA, New Zealand - Hector’s dolphins may be the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world, but they will seem larger than life when you are swimming nose-to-nose with them in the Pacific Ocean. In this seaside village no more than a few blocks long on the South Island’s Banks Peninsula, you can hop in the ocean and splash around with these playful and curious creatures.
Black Cat Group, an Akaroa-based outfitter, runs daily tours year-round to see the dolphins. Once you get suited up in a 5-millimeter wet suit, complete with hoody and booties (or a dry suit come winter), climb aboard a Black Cat vessel for a three-hour tour. The dolphins sometimes stick close to town and frolic in Akaroa Harbour, which is the flooded crater of an extinct volcano that stood here millions of years ago; the harbor is now designated a marine mammal sanctuary. The day I went, we had to motor seven miles from the downtown dock out to the mouth of the harbor, where we soon spotted a pod of about a dozen dolphins.
The water here is frigid - around 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, and the mid 40s in winter months - and you may be bobbing in several-foot swells, but it’s worth it to see the zippy little dolphins swim circles around you, often just a foot or two away.
Leave your inhibitions behind: The dolphins are attracted to you if you sing, hoot, yelp, or make any kind of playful noise underwater. It is illegal to touch them (or swim with them if any are calves, feeding, or mating), but just seeing these mammals up close is a thrill.
Only 12 people can swim with the dolphins on any one trip, and with no other boats in sight, it did not feel like a touristy experience.
The drive to Akaroa, about 90 minutes from Christchurch, is worth the trip. State Highway 75 passes sparkling Lake Ellesmere and then winds along a serpentine, at-times narrow road through beautiful hill country before dropping down into Akaroa. Enjoy the scenery because you will probably find yourself behind a tractor or a sightseeing driver with few opportunities to pass.
And leave a couple of hours to explore Akaroa. You will find hints of its former life as a French settlement: French-style architecture, cuisine, and outdoor cafes, and street names such as Rue Lavaud. If swimming with dolphins is not your thing, Black Cat Group also runs harbor cruises, during which you may see dolphins, penguins, and fur seals.
Black Cat Group, Main Wharf, Akaroa, New Zealand. 011-64-3-304-7641, www.blackcat.co.nz. Runs up to three trips a day October through April, and once a day May through September. Swimming with the dolphins/without: adults $139/$72, children ages 8-15 $115/$35.