Gliding across dim waters, anticipation builds as the pre-dawn light begins to burn like embers on the horizon. Shadows sporadically dance beneath the surface, almost like an illusion. But as the light spills across the deep it soon becomes clear that we’re not alone and in fact, just as we hoped, hundreds of dolphins are gliding beside us. I’m on a boat off the coast of Kaikoura in New Zealand, about to jump into the sea and meet some of the locals.

I spent a few amazing days in Kaikoura many years back on my first NZ visit and despite over a dozen trips back to the South Island, I never managed to make it back to Kaikoura, until now. Often, our memories fail to hold on to the finer details of a location, making us wonder if we’d noticed certain features the first time around. This time however, things are certainly different here and not as I remembered. In fact, the entire land and sea bed have been transformed by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that occurred on November 14, 2016. New land was forced up out of the sea with surrounding mountains crumbling tons of earth down over train lines and roads.

Through adversity, the locals here have bonded together and worked hard to keep businesses running as best as possible, with an abundance of incredible marine life still thankfully calling these waters home, something Kaikoura has become famous for. This was a brief trip for me and a small weather window was making sure of that. Fortunately, this window aligned with a planned sunrise session with the guys at Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura, as well as some whale watching later in the afternoon with Whale Watch Kaikoura.

With my photography being so reliant on weather, I’ve learned to always expect the worst-case scenario. So, when it came to this opportunity, I didn’t build my hopes up on seeing too many dolphins. You can of course imagine how stoked I was as hundreds of them eventually emerged from the silky sun-kissed waters right on dawn. Mountains on one side, glowing pastel clouds above, darting dolphins leaping into the light of the risen sun, I didn’t know where to point my lens and in fact was so overwhelmed I was often laughing aloud and shaking my head in disbelief. Then of course it came time to jump right in and meet the Dusky Dolphins face to face and that’s when the real fun began.

Now if you were wondering about the low water temps, I can tell you now between having a thick wetty on and the rush of being amongst the playful dolphins, I really didn’t feel it at all. It was nothing short of surreal watching dolphins fly towards you from afar as they leap out of the water then soar directly below you, just inches away. Often, a dolphin would lock eyes with me underwater and begin circling round and round as if to say, ‘c’mon let’s go!’. I’d spin along as fast as I could before I would become dizzy and burst out in laughter.

We followed the pods down the coast and enjoyed three swims before we eventually made our way back. A humpback whale even stopped in to say hi along the way. Funnily enough, we were back out on the water a few hours later with Whale Watch Kaikoura and were able to spend some more time with this Humpy as he put on a show, breaching several times for us and crashing back into the sea. We also hung out with two sperm whales who were kind enough to flick up their tales for everyone to capture that ‘must have’ whale photo. With the mountains as the backdrop and being so close to shore, it really doesn’t get much better than this for a whale and dolphin encounter.

I truly had such a memorable time on this day and I’m kicking myself that I hadn’t returned to Kaikoura sooner. I’m already planning a return trip for winter in the hopes of getting photos of the ranges covered in snow and of course, another swim with the dolphins.