Monday, October 24th, 2011: Akaroa, New Zealand
A last minute port replacement for Christchurch, which while making good progress still has a lot of reconstruction to complete before thousands of cruise ship passengers can enter its damaged city center, the tiny town of Akaroa was this year’s beneficiary of 83 cruise ships to represent the Canterbury region.
Akaroa has a unique past as the first location of French settlers in New Zealand. The only problem was that the British had already declared soverignity, and permitted the 63 original colonists from France to land and to form the town of Akaroa on the condition that they wouldn’t attempt to change the control of power in New Zealand. To this day, the streets in town carry French names (Rue Jolie, Rue Lavaud, etc.) and the French flag flies all over town, secondary to New Zealand’s of course, as the town shares its diverse and warm character, heritage, and people with its newly arriving visitors.
Arriving into French Bay from our anchorage in Akaroa harbor, our tender pulled up alongside the waterfront. We decided before our main activity of the day to take a walk through town. Though this only took about 30 minutes, start to finish, the place was a small town paradise, with cafes stacked with people enjoying a late brunch on Labor Day, a holiday, as well as the morning after New Zealand’s win of the Rugby World Cup. Small stores and boutiques selling crafts, fudge, and souvenirs. The town’s tiny little grocery store looked more like a 7-11 than a Safeway, but that’s the way the locals like it.
The closest major city to Akaroa is Christchurch, 83kms to the north northwest, and yet, the drive can take up to two hours on a narrow and windy two lane road that seems to follow the most indirect path possible. But, that seems to be a major part of Akaroa’s charm. Being this disconnected from the hustle and bustle allows this little town to quietly thrive without the highrise hotels, stoplights (there are none), and airports that can smother most communities.
As we walked the shoreline, we were entertained by a young boy playing accordion, roadside cafes blooming with spring flowers in a rainbow of colors offered a cup of coffee or a sit down brunch, local kids set up a “Pet Our Lamb” roadside stand that would put most lemonade stands at home out of business, and the local bar had a handful of locals still relishing the Rugby World Cup. They seemed to be stuck in an endless loop of singing/screaming Queen’s “We Are The Champions”, but they were very friendly and posed for all of the curious cruise passengers’ photographs, still dressed in Black and White to support the All-Blacks.
As we returned to the tender jetty, we arrived at Black Cat Cruises, a recommendation from superfriend Pete in Dunedin, for today’s shore excursion experience — Swimming With The Hector Dolphins, the smallest and most rare in the world. We were really excited to do this tour with Black Cat, as all of the dolphins are completely 100% wild — no guarantees of sightings or the ability to swim, but the team is fully committed to an amazing interaction with nature, if all of the conditions are right.
We met up with our captain, Hamish, and our guide for the day, Laura, and as a team, they got our group of nine fitted into wetsuits (the water temperature was about 58 degrees, so you want a proper and well fitting suit and gear to stay warm), gloves, neoprene boots, hoods, snorkels, and masks. Once we were ready to head out, we boarded our vessel and begin the trip out of Akaroa Harbour and into the South Pacific Ocean.
Hector dolphins are the smallest dolphins in the world, and at maturity measure less than 5 feet in length, toe to tail. They are also the rarest dolphins in the world, found only off the waters of New Zealand, and are a fully protected species on the endangered list. These dolphins share an unfortunate designation along with the bengal tiger, the giant panda, and other beautiful, but seriously small populations of animals remaining on the planet, so it was an exceptional opportunity to see them in person.
As we made our way out into the water, the rules are pretty straightforward. Look for dolphins and if they interact with our boat by swimming nearby or around the vessel for a period of time, we can enter the water and swim with them. Due the extremely sensitive nature of their skin, the dolphins cannot be touched, but they generally like to swim in and around the group of people in the water.
We encountered two small pods of Hectors out in the ocean, both of which were showing positive signs of interaction, so into the very chilly water we went. Unfortunately, it seemed though that for as much as they liked the boat, as soon as people got into the water, they would retreat to a distance from us. After about 15 minutes in the water, our guide and captain pulled us back into the vessel. We were fortunate to see them from the boat and got a few pictures and video, but the first pass was not successful.
Just a few minutes later, we encountered a second pod. Their interaction was much the same with a positive introduction and we were all back in the water in the hopes of getting even closer to these amazing creatures. On this attempt, one came within a few feet of both of us, but the interaction was very brief and over within a few seconds. Several minutes later, we were requested back onto the boat and were informed that our available two hour period in the water had been reached and that we would begin the trip back to the harbour. Though we were certainly excited about seeing several Hector dolphins, we would not be swimming with them today.
The tour provider was extremely generous and as part of their satisfaction guarantee, we were provided with a partial refund for the inconvenience, but we still thoroughly enjoyed the day out on the water, in the sun, and enjoying the natural environment of these amazing creatures.
We returned to the jetty tired, but refreshed (really cold water can do that to you) and got warmed up with hot showers and got changed back into our clothes. We returned to the ship exhausted, but having had a wonderful day in the tiny, picturesque town of Akaroa.