My face was an absolute picture. Looking back at the videos, the delight is evident in the open-mouthed grin which stays plastered to my face for the entire event.
As a child, my dream was to swim with dolphins. This most likely came from the glossy pages and pull-out posters from the likes of ‘Animals and You’ magazine, and in my more mature years, ‘Mizz’ and ‘Shout!’, of which I was a huge fan. Going by what these trendy mags stated, being a true nineties girl was comprised of having a major crush on Ben from A1 (my oh my that curtains hair do was dreamy), doing something embarrassing enough to win a £5 prize on the ‘Cringe!’ pages (“Yay! I’ll put that towards my new Tammy Girl t-shirt!”), learning all the dance moves to Britney’s ‘Oops I Did it Again’ (tick), and, yes, swimming with dolphins.
Once I had reached my teenage years and was trying desperately to emanate an indie kid style (odd Converses and swotting up on the NME website nightly), I had all but shunned this childhood dream. After all, surely you can only swim with dolphins in Florida at some ‘sanctuary’ where you are in a completely unnatural environment which is totally commercialised and not at all in fitting with the new, alternative lifestyle I’m trying to lead… right?
At twenty eight years old, I have fulfilled my dolphin swimming dream (also featured in the bucket list), and not only was it completely natural and in the wild and spontaneous and not commercialised at all (that’s right, we didn’t have to pay) it completely lived up to every ounce of excitement my seven year old self felt when I imagined it.
So there we were in the beautiful Curio Bay, a quiet and gorgeous beach within The Catlins Coastal Rainforest Reserve, tucked away in the southeast corner of New Zealand. We had heard talk of there being a school of Hectors Dolphins in the bay, and we thought we would venture out on our trusty body boards to float around posing as oversized dolphin bait.
It was 9am and apart from us, there were only a couple of other people in the water. Given that we were also in the very south of New Zealand, we were also in what were essentially Antarctic waters. Without wetsuits. Us hardy Devon folk don’t let a little thing like that stop us, however. Within five minutes or so, we spotted what we hoped were friendly fins in the distance. The excitement started to mount. Our attempts to keep quiet through chattering teeth were futile; I could barely contain myself, and plenty of frantic pointing, interpretive gesturing, GoPro preparation and loud whispers ensued.
And then, just like magic, they were all around us. And I mean, all around us. Not in a Jaws-esque, predator circling kind of way… just a group of wild animals, curious about taking a look at the two clumsy, non-amphibious creatures bobbing about on the surface.
I honestly couldn’t count how many there were. Perhaps ten in all? The fins just kept popping up above the surface between us, to the sides, and then they were zipping underneath us – below our body boards and into the waves where they surfed towards the shore, and back out to sea to join us again.
It was truly magical. I felt that childish glow of utter glee when you encounter something amazing for the first time. I guess you don’t get so many of those when you’re an adult.
It felt like a once in a lifetime moment – just me, James, and a whole bunch of dolphins frolicking out at sea. We went back to the same spot over the next couple of days to recreate the moment, and although a couple occasionally swam past us, we never shared the same unique interaction as that first time.
Lying on the beach later in the day, we watched our new playful friends appear in the clear waters of the rising swell, and felt incredibly privileged to have glimpsed a little bit of the magic of nature in a completely new way.