Nothing prepares us for our first sight of Akaroa’s tiffany blue harbour. We’ve been driving across Canterbury Plain, sparsely populated, each creek that we cross named on a yellow sign. Our spirits lift as we begin to climb into the volcanic round of mountains. Suddenly the vista opens out: green brown hills dipping their limbs into a long lagoon, its many bays like petals of a rare blue flower.
We stop the car. Photograph. Drive round the corner and stop again. Photograph. Eventually we realise that the view is not going to go away. The harbour is gorgeous at every turn. It is deep, with a mouth gulping at the Pacific. The French originally used it as whale nursery.
We hadn’t expected the water in New Zealand to be so bright. It’s like the Indian Ocean filling Norwegian fjords. The boys lob stones into the shallows while we sit spellbound by the bay. Later, we paddle off the grey volcanic beaches.
We’re here to swim with Hector’s dolphins. It’s hard to know what to expect. This is no Sea World. We’ll be out on the edge of the open sea, waiting for the wild creatures, the smallest and rarest of their family, to come by. The voyage out is just gorgeous. The mountains peel back on either side as our boat ploughs a wake through the cerulean depths. The simple joy of piloting these waters under a warm sun in a flawless sky is worth the trip alone.
Nevertheless, all eyes are peeled for a glimpse of distinctly semi-circular dorsal fin. After a couple of false alarms, a pair is seen at a distance. The captain nears the dolphins and cuts the engines, but they swim off. The animals are wild and there is no guarantee that they will be interested in socialising. Another group seems friendlier, but by the time we lower into the water, they too disappear. We’ve been told the water is nippy, and New Zealanders and Americans in the party complain about the cold. They’ve obviously never swum in the North Sea. In fact it’s relatively mild. The cool water creeps inside our wetsuits in sweet contrast to the beating sun.
We return to the boat and move further towards the open ocean. Turn right, and it’s non-stop to Antarctica; left, and you’ll be on course for Chile. A more engaging pod is found, and we drop off the back of the vessel again. Floating is easy in the extra thick suits, and we make noises to get the dolphins curious. Three of four times they swim through our midst, ghostly white and only an arm’s span away. Then they’re done. So is Theo: despite his double layers, he is shivering. Back on board we drink hot chocolate and make our way towards Akaroa.
On the jetty, we hear that the other group had half a dozen dolphins round them at all times. One man calls it ‘life-changing’. Our encounter was more fleeting, and we get given a partial refund. But we would have paid in full to see the creatures even at a distance, and to ride in the breeze and warm sun through that sumptuous, sparkling lagoon.