Coming Face-to-Face with Flipper

by Brian Carroll on April 13, 2012

Post image for Coming Face-to-Face with Flipper (Written on Friday, 3/16/12) - As I write this sitting on a picnic bench in a little beach town called Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, I know that some of my LA friends are right now where I anticipated being 6 months ago (as my unused plane ticket will confirm) - in Las Vegas to watch the first 2 days of March Madness basketball games, a tradition among a group of us for 5+ years now.  It's always a great couple of days with little sleep, probably too much alcohol, good friends and some awesome basketball games.  So to find myself now, across the world alone in New Zealand, is a little surreal to say the least.  In fact, my entire day today could be characterized as such. The Bay of Islands is known for its picturesque coastal scenery as well as various water tours, most notably, those that allow you to swim with wild dolphins - which was really the focus for my excursion up here.  While this may have you envisioning those pics where someone is holding on to the fin of a dolphin water-skiing across the water in the Bahamas, that's not exactly how this works. So at 8am this morning, I boarded a boat with about 20 other people, embarking on a 4 hour trek to find and attempt* to swim with dolphins.
*The reason I say "attempt" is there are strict regulations on swimming with dolphins in the wild.  First off, there is no guarantee you are going to see any.  Second, even if you do see them, the staff needs to then assess if the dolphin pod has any babies with it.  If it does, you are not allowed to swim with them, due to hazards this may cause that I can't recall now.  Thirdly, we were under a time crunch.  If by chance we saw them but it was at the end of the tour, we might not have a chance to give swimming a go.  And lastly, should we see them and were able to get in the water, there is no guarantee they'd want to interact with us.  As the staff said, your best chance is to make yourself "interesting to them" - swim in circles, make noise underwater with your snorkels, etc...  There was also the chance to see whales and killer whales, but we did not come across any of them.
Anyways, in my head, I gauged what my chances of success would be for the day: Positive Signs:
  • About 90% of the time this summer, the crew had spotted dolphins
  • Of that 90%, they were able to swim with dolphins about 70% of the time
  • There are about 50 pods of dolphins in the Bay of Islands - I think that's a good # but the bay is pretty big
Negative Signs:
  • There was a blanket of clouds and no signs of the sun breaking through - dolphins swim to where it's sunny.  As an expert dolphin-seeker, it did not seem promising
  • One of the girls staying at my hostel went yesterday and did not have any success swimming with them
20 minutes in: No signs of flipper(s) 45 minutes in: With passengers and crew keeping an eye out, nothing. 1 hour & 15 mins:  Ugh...nothing still. 1 hour & 30 mins:  A sign, maybe??  The crew spots a flock of birds circling an area (often a sign of dolphins nearby). 1 hour & 40 mins:  Finally, a dorsal fin spotted!!  Hopefully more! 1 hour & 45 mins:  2 dolphins.  And then 3.  And then 6.  After about 10 minutes, the dolphins (which were bottlenose and the most common in the Bay) began swimming in front of and adjacent to our boat.  Thanks to a steady camera hand (this means sarcastic), I was able to get some shots (see video below). While pictures are cool, I hoped for more than just that, I wanted to get in and swim with them.  But first, that required a thorough analysis of the pod and the hope that the dolphins would want to interact.  After about 10 more minutes, the crew gave the okay to get in the water.  About 10 of us decided to give it a shot, one-by-one, "slipping and diving" into the water as they say, with snorkels and fins. As I swam out in the water, I tried to get their attention in anyway possible:  splashing, swimming in circles, making attempted dolphin noises under water, etc... -anything these mammal would deem interesting...  Between focusing on my dolphin communication and limiting the amount of saltwater I swallowed through the snorkel, I really just hoped to swim in the right direction when looking under water (there was maybe 8 feet of visibility or so). The first couple minutes I really had no success tracking them underwater.  Basically, you'd search around and then pop your head up to see if you could see any fins (dolphin ones hopefully..) and/or listen to the crew directing you in the right direction when you're head was up.  If you were an onlooker, I'm quite sure it didn't look like we knew what we were doing swimming around, which was 100% correct. About 10 minutes in though I had some success, and then all of a sudden, found 4-5 dolphins swimming around and under me.  And with my noises and circle-swimming I even got one of them to do a few small loops with me and could hear them communicating underwater, which was awesome.  I probably could have maintained this for a couple more seconds had it not been for the saltwater I engulfed after I dove too low.  Either way, it was a pretty cool experience and something I would very much recommend to others.  The one thing I wished though is that I had an underwater camera with me, but it's all good, here's the shots I was able to get (I asked a fellow swimmer if he could send me his shots - if I receive them, I'll post them here too): To keep things going, I'm on my way now back to Auckland for one night, to randomly meet with someone from a message I posted on a backpacker board about renting a car and traveling the country for the next 5 weeks in a camper van.  We'll see how that goes.  More to come...

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Shawn Tydlaska on Facebook April 14, 2012 at 12:50 am

Wow. So awesome Brian. I would have tried to make Flipper noises. I am glad it worked out and you got to have some interaction with the dolphins.


Joe Carroll April 14, 2012 at 3:15 am

Afraid I couldn’t do the meat pie with mushy peas. Other than that, looks like you are having a great time. We laughed about “Wheres Brian?” (ou est Brian?). Mom took French. I can help if you nee dany Portuguese translations – Maybe. BonVoyage. Mom and Dad


Paula April 16, 2012 at 1:54 am

Hey Brian,
Just catching up on all of your travels! The dolphin excursion sounds amazing, although I think you’re probably interesting enough that you don’t need to swim in circles to attract attention. Keep enjoying the adventure. I’ll be thinking of you while I’m chained to my cubical.



Brian April 18, 2012 at 8:06 am

Haha, thanks Paula;) See you in a few months, hope you’re enjoying the new gig…I’m size 12 as I’m sure you were wondering


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