Leaving behind the omnipresent sky towers it is hard to believe that we are minutes away from entering Auckland’s Wild Marine Park but seated within the Dolphin Explorer we are about to do just that. Auckland City is blessed by having a precarious location in New Zealand’s north island, a place where sea and land carve into one another in a chaotic and beautiful demonstration.
There’s a sense of the passion onboard our vessel, yes it is a sightseeing boat but not only do the staff live and breathe conservation but they provide free access to local marine researchers. This will be our third outing with them since arriving in Auckland and it is strange to think that we haven’t yet seen it all. Every day has been as different as the weather, from choppy to glossy seas and sunny to rainy skies.
You never know what you are going to get, and isn’t that rather refreshing.
“We’re actually going bird watching” skipper Andy pipes up as we leave the harbour. No one looks that impressed. “We are specifically looking for the Australasian gannet. Why? Because everyday these birds go chasing for dolphins so everyday we go chasing the gannets.” The whole boat is now listening, Andy has oodles of knowledge from 25 years working out in the Hauraki Gulf and he is a passionate sharer.
The biology lesson continues as he explains why the Hauraki Gulf is a breeding ground for marine mammals. “Right now you can see the ocean is green, that’s because it’s full of phytoplankton or plant plankton and is a sign of a healthy ecosystem but up ahead the ocean will become blue. This colour change happens when zoo plankton and animal plankton collide and that draws in a smorgasbord of food for a whole bunch of marine life.”
We’re barely 25 minutes into the journey and the animal spotting has begun. Bottlenose dolphins and orcas are usually found within the Auckland harbour itself and just beyond its perimeter is a popular place to see the very cute little blue penguins dipping below the surface. By now the binoculars are out with Andy and first mate Rob taking turns to scour the horizon. We are hoping for a gathering of gannets or even the plume of a mighty whale. On our previous trips we have seen hundreds of frantic dolphins and birds diving into the water from thirty metres in the air. All of them trying to get their fill of small fish we cannot see. Today however, everything seems somewhat quieter, the water is a glassy canvas reflecting everything in the sky. Even a small simple splash causes a stir amongst the guests, “Feeding skip jack tuna” explains Andy to the curious faces glancing his way. The next time we catch a disturbance he is more excited, “Well now we just got lucky, that is a shark.”
I’m an avid diver so this is marvellous news, Andy releases the throttle and we glide towards the slither of dark that is skipping around the ocean. It is small, that’s for sure but it is easy to identify, only one animal has a head that is shaped in this way. The hammerhead shark darts away from our shadow only to return back alongside the boat, we can see two big black eyes protruding from his elongated head.
This encounter certainly starts the day off with a bang.
Half an hour later there are still no birds and certainly no fish feeding dramatics but “Eagle eyed Rob thinks he’s found a whale.” Andy gestures kindly to his first mate. The throttle comes off again and this time the engine is completely cut. “Brydes whales can dive for up to four minutes” Rob explains, “so all we can do is wait, and I’ll be quiet now, I promise, OK.” We laugh before silence descends upon us all, we don’t want to miss a thing. Whale or no whale, the four minutes in absolute silence, with no phones and no interruptions, is utter bliss, a bliss ruptured by an enormous roar of water. We know the whale has surfaced but we don’t know where. “Over here” someone yells and we catch a glimpse of a fin before she disappears again but she is not alone. Another plume of air and a second fin breaks the waters surface, her calf is by her side. We manoeuvre slightly to keep up, the whales surfacing to breath three times before submerging for another four minutes. Each glimpse is a treat but when the youngster changes course to charge beneath our boat we are overwhelmed. The glassy surface is like a window into the ocean, we watch his elongated body dive below our feet at the bow of the catamaran and disappear.
“And it doesn’t get much better than that” beams Rob.
We leave the whales because we think we’ve caught sight of a pod of dolphins, relying on the staffs keen sense of sight rather than our own. The horizon has melded into the sky and I can see nothing until we are practically on top of them. One, two, twenty, a few leaps, a few sightings of babies and the common dolphins have said hello and goodbye. They have passed onto a greater mission, chasing a shoal of fish who we can see glittering close to the surface. Staying as a tight group they dart left and right but do not escape a strict perimeter made by the dolphins. This might be a smaller feeding frenzy than we’ve seen before but the clarity of the water allows us to watch the whole process.
“Spare a thought for the poor fish” the skippers voice interrupts our eagerness to watch the feed, “This will be their final moment on Earth. Common dolphins alone will eat 20kg of these guys every single day so can you imagine just how much food this area needs to produce?”
Actually no, I can’t. Just like everything else I’ve seen today the phenomenal ecosystem of Auckland’s seas is completely astonishing.
Now I’ve taken this trip three times I can confirm that it is never the same; sometimes hundreds of hunting common dolphins, sometimes gannets diving from the skies, sometimes dolphins leaping from the bow and now whales, penguins and hammerhead sharks.
The crew do not know we are bloggers so there is no reason for telling you this other than the genuine fact that Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari is incredible. My advice to anyone living in Auckland with an afternoon to spare, instead of chasing the city highlights or the aquarium get a true taste of what this place has to offer and chase down some of natures finest displays. Taking a journey from the city to the sea has never been more wild.