E-Ko Tours Swim with Dolphins Review – Best Up-Close Experience of Dolphins in New Zealand

E-Ko Tours organizes amazing half-day excursions where you swim with the dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds. The Marlborough is a region of deep water sounds, emerald islands, and isolated peninsulas accessible only by boat.

 

E-Ko Tours operates out of Picton in New Zealand’s South Island. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see and swim with dolphins in their natural habitat. Picton is a port in the Queen Charlotte Sound where the ferries from the North Island dock, connecting the two major land masses of the country. Pretty much everyone visiting both Islands passes through this picturesque town. It is also a launch pad for hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, either on a day walk or a multiple-day 44-mile bush walk with spectacular views.

A swim with the dolphins is a perfect way to baptize the start of a magical South Island journey. Or you can do as I did and see it as the grace note to cap it off a magical tour of the southland. A marvelous plus to the E-Ko-Tours is that their trips include visits to many of the inlets and coves around the Marlborough. What you get is a breathtaking series of  islands and coves along with the wildlife of sea, sky, and land. All in a jewel setting of pristine water. And it is done with the welfare of the dolphins and their environment lovingly and fiercely protected.

 

Swimming with dolphins is pretty much a bucket list dream for most people. In New Zealand,  dolphin swims happen in the open sea. This is a rarity in the world of dolphin swimming. In most places the dolphins are penned into dolphinariums. The term "dolphinarium, is a fance word for "water cage." Swimming with them in open water is a joy for the creatures and for the humans who would get closer to them.

 

E-Ko Tours gives you a wetsuit and snorkel mask, then show you how to handle yourself in the water. The big surprise: you have to sing to the dolphins through your snorkel mask to call them to you. Yes, sing. You warble high and low, varying pitch and tempo. You know those audio recordings of whale song. You imitate those as loudly as you can to attract them and then keep them interested. If they do not think your singing is interesting, they leave. If they like it they swim under and by you, as you bob in a group a bit away from the boat.

 

We are told expressly not to try to touch them. I can see where a person would be tempted. But our skin and the oils on it are not good for them.

In the E-Ko Tours offices, we changed into our wetsuits. After getting our safety instructions and practicing our musical repertoire, we headed out on a tour of the Sounds. The scenery is worth the cruise all by itself. In fact, many of the passengers were there to look, not swim. We all kept an eye out for dolphins, though spotting them in the choppy water proved harder than you would expect.

Side Note on Natural Camouflage: scanning the waves for a pod of dolphins produces many false sightings. The way dolphins rise and dip resemble the way wavelets form on the surface of the water.

 

When someone spots pod of dolphins, the guides make sure they are not feeding and have no young dolphins with them. Young dolphins might trigger adult protective aggression. A couple of times, we had to leave the dolphins with only a sighting for that reason. Finally, we found a pod of bottlenose dolphins and we pulled up. The ladder was lowered and we climbed into the water. Our guide kept a close watch, making sure we stayed in a tight group, not too close or too far from the boat. She also was able to point us in the right direction to see the dolphins coming.

It was quite hard to bob in the choppy water, keep my head under, and sing, while looking through the dark water for the dolphins. Part of it was nervousness that I would miss my chance. The dolphins swim by so fast!  Sometimes we were surrounded by dolphins and missed them because we were too focused on what we were doing. I know see that I needed to relax, worry less about singing loud enough or keeping my head down. The experience was better on the second swim for that reason.

Soon I got more oriented. The singing actually helped me not feel the cold. (That and all my layers of subcutaneous fat. I swear humans in prehistoric times considered making the move to water like dolphins did. This is why we get fat all over our hairless bodies.)

 

We swam with bottle nose and dusky dolphins, not that I could really tell the difference in the water. Now when I think of this tour, the first image that comes to mind is a sleek dolphin streaking ten feet below my dangling legs, a dusky blue dancer in the green ocean waters, purely wild and free.

E-Ko Tours was a wonder for me, letting me get close to these water-born mammals in their natural habitat. As I said,  most swimming with dolphins happens in tanks or blocked-off sections of ocean that trap the dolphins in a small area. "The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity" by the Humane Society calls keeping cetaceans in captivity is inherently cruel. It induces not just psychological pain but physical trauma. The dolphins self-mutilate. Get ulcers.  They kill offspring rather than bring them into their world. Don’t support this.

 

Swimming with the dolphins in their natural habitat is less “up close and personal” but opens a window on the beauty and mystery of the dolphins’ existence. New Zealand is pretty passionate about protecting its wildlife and so the I figured I didn’t have to worry about the environmental impact of my tour. As it is, I lucked out, because not all dolphin swims are equally conscientious.

Some companies were grandfathered in when new and stricter limits were put in place to protect dolphin populations. The dangers are not obvious, and I didn’t have known to worry about my swim being at all problematic in the open sea. Instead I felt virtuous for all the times I chose not to swim with penned dolphins. In New Zealand, the ever stricter regulations have limited swimming with dolphin species that are in decline.

 

The endangered Hector dolphins, the smallest in the world and who exist only in New Zealand, are quite curious and will leave off feeding to check out the humans in the water. Less focus on feeding, what with tours in their area several times a day, can lead to lower birth weights and contribute to species decline. Yet when I was in Akaroa, the tours were booked for days even though it was not yet high season. Newer companies like E-Ko Tours are forbidden from letting swimmers enter the water in the presence of Hectors. However, companies that were giving such tours before the new regulations took effect in places like Akaroa are still allowed to run them and people flock to swim with a species that may soon disappear, not realizing that they may be contributing to that end by their action. It’s human nature to say one person won’t make a difference either way but the truth is that everybody has to withhold their grain of sand from the hourglass that is running out for these marvelous creatures.

Not that I knew it at the time myself.  Ignorance really is bliss. It was the earthquake in Kaikoura messed with my South Island itinerary and why I missed out on the Hector dolphin experience in Akaroa. When I took the tour in Picton, we were able to swim with other dolphins and sight the elusive Hectors only. So even someone trying to be an eco-conscious traveler can harm their beautiful host country because of the money made from tourism. I feel lucky that I was able to have a great experience and was prevented by chance from adding my grain of harm to the beach of world tourism.

Finally, I have to say how wonderful our captain and our guide were. They were rooting for us to have a first-rate day, making extra effort to find dolphins for us to swim with. The captain wanted us to see all the types of dolphin. After our second swim, he took us places where the rare Hector's are likely to feed, hoping to give us a glimpse of them. We went places in hopes of sighting seals and got lucky. The day, which started out gloomy and choppy, too choppy to actually swim, turned bright and calm.

Not every trip gets to swim. It's a bit of a crap shoot. The seas have to be calm enough. The dolphins have to be there and in the right state to be engaged safely. The weather has to cooperate. Chance plays a role, certainly, and there are partial refunds when conditions don't line up. Business aside, I liked this company and its people. They love the flora and fauna of New Zealand with a charming pride. They believe in working to making it cleaner and safer for the indigenous creatures to live side by side with humans. I learned a lot from our guide and saw the forests and waters differently when the trip was over.

 

So go with your bucket list dream and swim with dolphins when you visit magical New Zealand, and give E-Ko Tours in Picton, South Island a call.

E-Ko Tours website

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 Photos: Susan DiRende

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