Dolphin-Watching with Akaroa Dolphins

I’d like to preface this review by saying that the customer service I received at Akaroa Dolphins has been the best out of anywhere in New Zealand so far.

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Like most people, I don’t like to part with my money.

For example, I once spent hours freezing my butt off on a rocky, windy beach to see one penguin instead of spending $30 to sit in a real chair and see loads of them in 15 minutes.

I paid the full price for a cruise with Akaroa Dolphins. As soon as I got off their boat, I wanted to pay to get back on and do it again. And we saw penguins!

Swimming Little Blue Penguin

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From the start, their customer service at was incredible.

A thick fog had landed on Akaroa the morning we had planned to do our cruise. When we called to book our spots, the woman on the phone warned us they might cancel the cruise if visibility did not improve. The skipper would decide closer to departure time.

Ships in Foggy Water at Akaroa

The fog lifted just enough, leaving us with a perfect overcast day to be on the water. When we arrived at the office to pay and pick up our tickets and given tips on where to park in town. We were told that the morning cruise had “fantastic dolphins”, and we could expect the same.

I asked if I could charge my camera battery before our departure. The receptionist offered to call ahead to their location closer to the jetty to save me more of a walk back to the boat. Upon arrival at the second location, they were expecting me, and gladly let me charge my battery. Even before we saw the boat, we knew we were in good hands.

Blue and White Jetty at Akaroa Harbour

Right on time, Desiree (our guide), Bainsy (the skipper) and Buster (the dolphin dog) were all on deck to meet everyone. As a perk of doing a cruise in the off-season, only 9 people had booked. We all fit right in the front of the boat where the viewing was best. Desiree went over the ship’s safety precautions, and Buster settled in for some cuddles.

Miniature Schnauzer cuddles in on the boat

As we cast off, Desiree offered everyone a massive jacket to keep warm if their own wasn’t adequate. She also took orders for a beer, a glass of wine, or something softer. Bainsy raved about the perfect weather we had for dolphin watching as he pulled into the harbour – the sea was flat and there was no sun glare.

The Banks Peninsula, which Akaroa is a part of was created by a massive volcano, so you can expect some insane landscapes all around. I’d put the views on par with a Milford Sound cruise (and with a fraction of the people!).Moody lighting hits the cliffs through the fog at Akaroa

Moody lighting hits the cliffs through the fog at Akaroa

Nikau palm trees and a waterfall on the cliffs above Akaroa HarbourAll I knew about Akaroa was that it was a French settlement – the street names are still in French today. I had no idea how interesting the history was! There was a race between the English and the French to get there first, which the English actually won. Also, the first signing of the Waitangi Treaty happened in Akaroa. If you’d like to know more, here is some reading. Or book a tour and let Desiree and Bainsy tell you the stories while you stare at the cliffs and imagine it all.

Everyone was shivering as we got farther out into open water and our speed picked up. The ship practically rocked with excitement as we saw our first signs on dolphins, and we all forgot the cold. Two little rounded dorsal fins broke the surface about 20 metres from the boat. They surfaced a few times all around us but weren’t acting too lively – most likely feeding. The cruise group was all excited, but Bainsy decided to move us on, to give the dolphins space to eat in peace, and not to waste our time.

It was only a few minutes before we came across a pod that wanted to play.

I’ve never seen dolphins up close before. I was half-convinced that seeing them play along with a boat was a myth. It isn’t. These guys come right under the front of the boat and look right up at you. Buster began racing around the deck, listening to their clicks and squeals, which are too high-pitched for human ears. To know which side of the boat the dolphins are approaching, keep an eye on the dog.

The little Hector’s dolphins don’t keep up with the boat for too long, but they do put on a show while they’re there. Swimming upside down, doing barrel rolls, racing ahead to jump out of the water – I can’t say whether we were having a better time, or them.

Hector's dolphins playing with the ship in Akaroa

Hector's dolphins playing with the ship in Akaroa

Hector's dolphins playing with the ship in Akaroa

Hector’s dolphins are the smallest and rarest in the world, and you can feel the love that everyone at Akaroa Dolphins has for them. Desiree told us she’s been working for the company for 10 years, and they never cease to make her smile. The Maori name for the dolphins is tutumairekurai, which means “Special Ocean Dweller”. It will only take you a minute to see how perfect that name is.

We got a special treat – the water was calm enough for us to go out to Cathedral Cove. Lava created these cliffs, and it almost defies comprehension to see them in person. To be completely honest, I was too entranced to hear much of what Bainsy was saying about the geography.

 

The day got better. Another stroke of luck. The only fishing boat allowed in the Akaroa harbour, “Murphy’s”, was trolling nearby. His ship attracts all sorts of seabirds and heaps of dolphins.Fishing boat on the ocea

Time seemed to slow down. The ocean took on a smoky, silky look. Enormous Royal Albatross skimmed the water next to tiny black-and-white pigeons. Buster was running laps around the boat trying to bark at all the dolphins around us. Six of them played up at the front, under our outstretched necks, while more raced in from the sides. As I leaned over the rail to watch the pod, some of them turned rolled from side to side, to take a look up at as. I definitely almost cried – it was the perfect moment.

Royal Albatross floats on the ocean

Royal Albatross takes off from the water

Albatross skims the water in Akaroa

The excitement and joy on the deck were infectious, even Desiree and Bainsy were feeling it. We all gave Murphy a big wave as our boat steered away.

As we turned back to head in, everyone relaxed once again to take in the landscape. We all started to feel the cold once more. A home-made cookie offered by Desiree was a welcome distraction from the shivers. Bainsy took us in closer to the cliffs to see a handful of baby seals and told us all about the conservation work going on all around the bay as we got closer to Akaroa. A portion of your ticket goes toward supporting local conservation efforts!

 

Through a combination of luck and incredible customer service, we had the best possible experience with Akaroa Dolphins. There were handshakes and hugs all around as we disembarked. I can’t thank Desiree, Bainsy, and Buster enough for such a fantastic afternoon. Akaroa Dolphins gets a 100% recommendation from me.

Be sure to work a cruise with Akaroa Dolphins into your New Zealand itinerary, and give Buster a pat.

Miniature Shnauzer on a boat

How To Get There

  • You can take the bus from Christchurch to Akaroa for $50 NZD return with Akaroa Shuttle or Intercity Bus. Be sure to check Book Me for deals first. The ride takes about 2 hours.  Akaroa is a tiny town and easily walkable once you’re there.
  • Driving is probably your best bet, especially if you want to see any more of the Peninsula. We had stayed the night before at Okains Bay campsite and drove into town in the morning. Most of the side-streets have unrestricted parking, so if you don’t mind a bit of a walk you should have no trouble finding a space (at least in the off-season)

What To Bring

  • Your camera! Make sure it is charged and ready to go, with lots of space on your card. And a bit of advice, coming from someone who always takes way too many photos. Once you get a few shots, put down your camera and just watch the cutest dolphins on Earth do their thing. Be there.
  • Something warm. If you don’t have a warm enough jacket, the good folks at Akaroa Dolphins can provide you with a massive one to keep out the cold. Consider a snug hat (it gets windy on the ocean), a scarf, and some gloves though, especially if you’re doing a cruise in the colder months.
  • Sunscreen! You are in New Zealand after all. Even though we had thick fog all morning and overcast skies all afternoon, my nose still got a bit pink.
  • Shoes. My travel buddy only wore flip-flops during the tour, and his feet were about purple from the cold by the end of it. Of course, he’s Australian and therefore has feet made of titanium, but a normal person would probably have frostbite.

Cost:

  • The tour cost $80 NZD for about 2 hours of incredible dolphin watching. There are other tours that are slightly cheaper, or available on BookMe, however, I cannot speak for the quality of them. I can tell you that doing a cruise with Akaroa Dolphinsis absolutely worth it, and we had zero buyer’s remorse.

Have you ever been on a dolphin-watching adventure? Tell me about it in the comments!

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20 Comment

  1. This sounds like an amazing day! I will definitely bookmark this for when I eventually make it to NZ. How clever to have a “Dolphin Dog” – I never thought about how their hearing would be more attuned to a dolphin, but that makes perfect sense!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Ooh I hope you do make it down here! You’ll love it, I promise! I was pretty surprised to see a dog on board as well, but Buster was definitely faster than the rest of us at pinpointing their location around the boat. It really took a lot of the guesswork out of it and gave everyone a better chance to see them.

  2. Dawn says: Reply

    So glad you had such a fantastic experience. We lived on a sailboat for a few months and I loved when the dolphins came and played in our bow wake.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Oh wow, now THAT sounds like an incredible experience, I’m sure it never got old.

  3. Buster looks like he had a blast dolphin watching. LOL

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      He absolutely loves it! Although I’d be hard pressed to say whether he has more fun with the dolphins or crawling into guest laps when they’re not around.

  4. Looks like it would’ve been worth the trip for the nature and landscape views alone! But you got some outstanding wildlife shots.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I think the same, even if we didn’t see any dolphins the cruise would have been great. And thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, working with a moving target from a moving boat was definitely a challenge.

  5. Melai says: Reply

    You are so close to the dolphins! I’ve seen one before but from afar and the head is the only thing visible. This is such an interesting experience (and timely cos we’re heading to NZ soon). Is the cruise available all year round? I want to try this too. 🙂

    PS. That dog is so charming! <3

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      So close! And because it isn’t a massive ship, you aren’t too high above the water, it feels like you could almost touch them. Akaroa Dolphins does tours year round (weather permitting), although for autumn and winter they only do two cruises per day instead of four. Give buster a pat for me when you go!

  6. I’m totally the same with money and budgeting (why pay for something if I can do it myself?) – except when I’ve read reviews like this in advance and can feel pretty good about shelling out some cash. I’m actually thinking of doing the working holiday in NZ, so I’ll have to check them out if I go!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I’m the same, I always read heaps of reviews before I select an activity. Glad I could be of help to you! I can also 100% a working holiday in New Zealand, it is such an incredible country. Definitely get on a dolphin boat while you’re here!

  7. wow this is super cool! I’m going to New Zealand next month so I’ll have to save your post so I can check them out! 🙂

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      That’s so exciting! Welcome in advance! You’re going to absolutely love it. If you come to Queenstown (and you should!), give me a shout! Or if you have any questions, I might be able to help. Shoot me an email at lisa@losingyourfeet.com

  8. Laura says: Reply

    Is that YOUR schnauzer? I have one too. They are the best! I’ve never taken her out on the water, she needs to get a cute life jacket.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I wish! Unfortunately Buster is an employee of Akaroa Dolphins, but I’d love to take him home, such a sweetheart! And agreed, how cute is that life jacket? Apparently he’s fallen off the ship twice, so it’s a much needed safety precaution.

  9. Kelli says: Reply

    What a fantastic experience. I have never seen a dolphin that looks like these. I’ve heard dolphins are very interactive, and there are theories that dolphins are are the only other species considered persons.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I’d definitely believe that – you can see their obvious intelligent and fun-loving nature! The Hector’s dolphins are pretty unique to New Zealand I believe, so you’ll have to come down here to see them!

  10. This sounds amazing! I’ve always loved dolphins and was so excited the first time I saw them in the wild in Gold Coast on Christmas Day this year 🙂 I’m living in Wellington at the moment, but haven’t travelled much of NZ yet. I’ve heard from so many people how great Akaroa is, so I’m definitely planning to visit! So amazing too that you got to see penguins and seals as well!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Oh man, that would’ve been incredible. Dolphins on Christmas Day!! My brief visit to Wellington was great, that city has an awesome vibe. Definitely get out and around the South Island! Akaroa is super cute, and pretty easy to get to. If you go on a dolphin cruise, apparently you might even get super lucky and see some orcas!

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