|The weather had been predicted as getting bad to worse today, so we decided to abandon plans to go to Hanmer and Kaikoura and instead we thought we would make a trip out to Akaroa on the Bank's Peninsula. Kate and I had long wanted to do this trip for a while so it was great that she had taken the day off to come with us. Mike elected to stay in Christchurch and potter in bookshops which meant that the rest of us could all go in the car.
The drive along the SH 75 was very spectacular once we got into the hills, and there were great views as we came over the top towards the harbour. It all looked very verdant and even the sun came out for us.
Akaroa and the region around is quite interesting as it claims a truthful, but slightly overplayed French influence. Back in the early days of colonisation, a French captain landed here, struck a deal with the local Maori, then went back to France to gather a group of settlers to come here. Just days before they arrived back, the British snuck in and plonked the Union Jack there claiming sovereignty under the terms of the Waitangi Treaty. Although prevented from becoming an outright French colony, the settlers stayed and created a little French enclave, reflected in the street names (Rue Jolie) and some of the buildings. However, the modern town has really milked the connection with France with all things francais popping up, including a spectacularly naff shop selling eiffel towers. Couldn't find anywhere selling models of the Rainbow Warrior though.
Actually it was a very pretty place and the views across the bay were wonderful, little boats bobbing around in the gentle green waters of the harbour.
We had lunch at yet another "world famous" fish and chip shop before heading towards the Wharf to accept our day's mission: swimming with dolphins. As we couldn't see whales up in Kaikoura, we thought this would be just as good. We had heard excellent reports of the dolphins in Akaroa so we took the chance.
However, it looked like the weather would ruin our plans again. When we got to the wharf the previous trip came in and told of cold water, wind and choppy seas. One girl said she only put here leg in before giving in. The captain said that conditions were a bit rough and cold but he was willing to give it a go if there was interest. Apart from our party, there was another couple, Andy and Lol who were keen to go as it was there last day in NZ and they too had had most of their other plans ruined by conditions. We were persuaded and soon putting on our wetsuits ready for the trip out of the bay. Only Kathryn decided not to try to swim, and instead offered to take pictures for everybody else, which was very kind of her.
On the way out of the bay, the captain told us all about the dolphins we might encounter. Hectors Dolphins are the smallest dolphin in the world (1.2 - 1.4m long) and are unique to New Zealand, with only a population of some 7000, 1000 of which hang out at Akaroa. They suffered a lot through aggressive fishing practices but are now protected and seem to be recovering. Even though they are protected, they are very inquisitive and playful by nature so swimming is permitted by licensed operators but they have to respect the wild nature of the animals, and not to feed them or interfere with their natural patterns. That said, this was their fourth trip out today...
Soon we were out of the shelter of the bay and out into open sea. Conditions were now very bright and the waters seemed relatively calm, not the terrible picture we were painted earlier. The captain shouted that he had spotted some fins and we were instructed to get ready to get in the water.
Stopping the boat roughly where the dolphins had been spotted, we gingerly climbed into the water and moved away from the boat. Actually the water wasn't that cold with the wetsuit, which also gave so much buoyancy that you barely needed to do anything to stay afloat. We moved about 5m apart from each other and then waited.
It was a strange sensation waiting to be found. The captain had given me a couple of small stones to bang together in the water to mimic the sounds made by the dolphins and soon enough they found us. It was a real game of hide and seek at first as those on the boat shouted that they were behind us, only for us to miss them as they swum between us. We got the hang of it though and soon we were spotting them ourselves and putting our heads under at the right time to see their sleek bodies glide past us beneath the surface and then dive into the deep.
Probably because I had the stones, I was quite popular with the dolphins, with two or three swimming round me at a time. It was really magical seeing them this close and you had to resist the temptation to reach out and touch them. I passed the stones on to the others but I think most people were seeing quite a lot. Kate and Paul also got a lot of interest, and Ann saw what she could with one contact lens.
We jumped back on the boat a few times and moved to other areas and we must have spent nearly an hour in the water. The crew said they were very surprised after the disappointments earlier in the day and that this was the best swim they had had all week, so I think we were very lucky. I was pleased for Ann & Paul and the other couple that they had at least one successful trip.
Once out the water we tried to warm up with some hot chocolate and then we watched the dolphins swim beneath the bow of the boat as we made our way back to Akaroa. They really are wonderful creatures and we were really pleased to have done that. Kathyrn had also done a sterling job of juggling five cameras to take pictures of us so a big thanks to her.
Back on shore we celebrated with a drink before heading back to the car. Not before time too. As we walked back we could see the dark roll clouds creeping into the bay over the hills, heralding the predicted bad weather. It looked really dramatic and the rain began as we got into the car and headed back.
In the evening, we had planned to go to a Cajun restaurant on Manchester Street that Paul had spotted but predictably it was booked up when we got there. We made sure we had a reservation for Saturday instead, then went over the road to Two Fat Indians, where Kate and I had our first meal in Christchurch, just over a month ago (it seems a long time ago). The food seemed to be better this time and the sauces not as floury as they had been elsewhere. We spent a long time converting dishes from NZ spiciness to UK spiciness like we were changing currency. If you want a curry that is "Medium" in UK you have to ask for a "Hot" in NZ. Useful tip that....
Anyway, a satisfying end to a very satisfying day.