New Year in a New Zealand summer

Taking a break from tigers and rhinos, Lisa Choegyal is fascinated by the freedom of dolphins and whales

Dusky dolphins skimming past our boat in the turquoise waters off Kaikoura peninsula.

“Keep your eyes down once you are in the sea, remember the dolphins are in the water not in the air.” We nod mutely through our masks. “And keep singing in order to attract them – dolphins are playful and inquisitive, but no touching.”

I am encased in a clinging black wet suit from head to toe including a dark hood that makes it hard to hear, as close as I’m likely come to looking like one of them. The boat is expertly positioned beside a pod of dusky dolphins and at the given signal we take a deep breath and clamber off the stern into the South Pacific ocean.

The sun has crept up over the hazy horizon and the clouds over the distant mountain shoreline are threatening a summer shower. The shock of the cold is eclipsed by the surprise of finding myself amidst hundreds of sleek dolphins keen to frolic. These wondrous creatures circle and speed beneath me in lithe groups of two and three, streamlined black and white, passing close, and dazzling in their wild curiosity.

They leap, they spiral, they somersault, and if I lift my masked face I can see the dorsal fin above the translucent water but also the elegant pied curve normally hidden beneath the waves. Singing tunelessly into my snorkel as instructed, my voice falters and my stomach heaves with emotion, profound immersion in a primeval universe, eye contact with a wild dusky dolphin in the open ocean.

New Zealand’s Kaikoura Peninsula suffered a massive tectonic upheaval during the 7.8 earthquake in 2016 that ricocheted up the fractures of the South Island’s northeast, changing the coastal contours and up-thrusting the seabed by as much as two meters. Harbours, jetties, hotels, homes, roads and railways were displaced and damaged, and the reconstruction continues.

The deep ocean trenches and submarine canyons lying off Kaikoura create uniquely sheltered and plankton-rich conditions that attract a wealth of resident and migrant sea life, notably congregations of southern hemisphere dolphins and several species of whales. Colonies of seals honk on the kelp-encrusted rocks, and a variety of albatross, those haunting seabirds with the world’s widest wingspan, skim and wheel close to shore.

After a career showing tourists the mega-fauna of the Nepal Himalaya and grappling with wildlife conservation concerns, I was interested to see the whale watching business that had transformed the sleepy village of Kaikoura and enriched its Maori owners. With almost-guaranteed sightings throughout the year, marine mammal viewing concessions at Kaikoura had long been cited by my Kiwi colleagues as one of the best examples of tourism and conservation – a serious local business but strictly controlled to protect the marine environment.

The Kaikoura experience is so well established as a cornerstone of New Zealand tourism that after the earthquake, rather than miss the whales, dolphin, seal and albatross encounters on offer, visitors took long detours inland through rural farmland and across mountain passes until the coastal roads reopened.

Taking a break from tigers and rhinos, I’ve always been fascinated by the freedom of marine mammals and the privilege of glimpsing them in their boundless natural habitat. Researching the Philippines ecotourism strategy, villagers showed us five different species of small whales and dolphin in one afternoon.

I have had semi-habituated dolphins darting between my legs whilst paddling in a remote Western Australian resort, and swum with sharks and stingrays in a Tahitian lagoon. The opportunities of whale shark tourism, those gentle filter-feeding leviathans and the planet’s largest fish, has turned fishing folk into conservationists throughout their range.

I have spotted the huge bulk of a blue whale with a baby, the largest animal in existence, cruising just beneath the waves on her annual journey south to Antarctica. My most memorable moment was snorkelling with a young humpback in Tonga, in a deep bay off Vava’u where whales rest briefly during their annual migration - I was working on a South Pacific marketing plan. But that was all before the rapture of my hour with the Kaikoura dolphins.

It is Christmas, the height of summer in New Zealand, but I feel miles away from holly, tinsel, decorated trees and the other trappings of our traditional celebrations. Christmas and summer are a strange coagulation for those of us used to the winter solstice and pagan traditions adapted to relieve the long, dark, cold months of the north.

I am still in a dolphin daze as we drive back past sunny roadside stands selling fresh crayfish. In the Marlborough valley delicate green tendrils of new vines brush our faces as we stroll the regimental lines of a vineyard, our bare feet enjoying the dawn dew of the mowed grass. Birdcalls fill the morning air, fantails fuss amongst the green borders, tuis streak through the flowering flax, and the promise of impervious sun drenches the coming day. Flying across Cook Strait, a shaft of light catches the white car ferry ploughing through the choppy furrows of the indigo sea, blotched navy by cloud reflections.

“They really don’t know how to do Christmas properly here at all.” My originally Irish cousin Sal and I stand thigh deep in the turquoise shades of the South Pacific, the sky an aching blue, our skin zinging with salt. It is early in the New Year and New Zealand summer is in full swing.

A neighbour entertains himself by painting a red sign for a makeshift driftwood bar on the empty beach, someone brings a tray of cool sparkling Kiwi wine to christen it, and our feet burn on the hot sand. Sal smiles: “But you get used to it.”

Lisa Choegyal