DANCES WITH DOLPHINS

You stand a good chance of seeing dolphins in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. Mark Mann not only swam along with three of them, he also met a band of teenage killer whales
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The Independent Culture
WE GASPED as the killer whale glided right beside the boat, effortless and powerful. It was so close we could clearly see its streamlined form and smooth, tough, black-and-white skin. A dozen cameras whirred and clicked.

Andy reached over the side as the giant mammal swam past, letting the full length of its body run underneath his fingers. "I touched it, I touched it, eh." (New Zealanders end every sentence with "eh", making all statements sound like a question.) He danced around the boat, grinning with delight. "That's the first time I've ever touched an orca," he called gleefully across to Nigel, the skipper of the second boat.

Andy was our guide. Yet here he was, jumping around, even more excited than the rest of us.

Not that we weren't thrilled, too. It's not every day that you get within touching distance of a wild killer whale, after all. But Andy's excitement made us feel this really was a special encounter, not just "another day at the office" for him and Nigel. Andy later told me that they'd often come close to orca (the correct name for killer whales) before, but never quite this close.

I'd come to New Zealand's beautiful Bay of Islands, in the country's mild, green north, to see the dolphins that live in the bay's waters. But today the orca were stealing the show. For almost an hour they swam around our two boats, occasionally disappearing to re-emerge a few minutes later, one with a huge stingray in its mouth as if to show off its fishing prowess. Andy told us the three were adolescent males. Nearby we caught glimpses of the rest of the "pod", maybe 10 in all.

As we watched and photographed, Andy told us about orcas. They are not really whales at all, but a species of dolphin. They have no natural predators and, as a consequence, probably no sense of fear. One of the planet's most intelligent species, today they are clearly as curious about us as we are about them. Andy claims they are attracted by the music we are playing, the sound vibrating through the water. Should you ever invite a killer whale home, remember that they like Van Morrison.

After an hour or so, we left the orca to search for dolphins. Nigel and Andy quickly tracked down a pod of about 50 bottlenose dolphins in the open ocean just outside the mouth of the bay. Now was our chance to swim. With a deep breath, I plunged in.

As I swam away from the boat, three dolphins circled beneath me, two adults and one smaller, younger animal. My heart jumped, and not just from the cold. I was in open seas, a few feet away from a wild animal twice my size. Seeing dolphins at close range for the first time, their size is a surprise. I suddenly realised that here in the water I was virtually helpless. I dived down, swallowing a mouthful of water in my excitement. The dolphins passed again, their easy command of the water and graceful movements a contrast to my own clumsy floundering. Then, after a few minutes, they left. We scrambled back into the boat, glad at least to be out of the icy water.

Andy explained that the dolphins are never predictable. Sometimes they play for half an hour, even imitating the jerky movements of human swimmers. They respond best to strong swimmers who dive beneath the surface and interest them, to children and especially to pregnant women. On other days they simply aren't in the mood. These are wild animals, not trained circus performers.

On board the boat again, we caught up with the dolphin pod. The dolphins jumped and danced in the boat's wake and under its bow, playing in the turbulence as if it were a fairground ride.

My trip was run by Dolphin Discoveries. Founded in 1991, they are among the pioneers of "dolphin-swimming" in New Zea-land. With small (12-seater) speedboats, they claim a 90 per cent plus success rate in locating dolphins or whales, and offer a free trip if no sightings are made. The guides are all marine biologists who have spent years studying the animals in the bay, learning their habits and favourite feeding places.

The Bay of Islands was once a busy whaling station. Now the locals profit from the wonderful mammals in a less bloody fashion. Near the warmer, northern tip of the country, the bay is one of the few places in New Zealand where such trips can operate all year. There are permanent populations of bottlenose and common dolphins, penguins and fur seals, plus regular sightings of orcas, and of sei and minke whales.

No two trips are the same. The guides explore the bay looking for whatever might turn up, always finding the animals in their natural environment. Sometimes they are feeding, mating or resting, and cannot be disturbed. Encounters such as today's with the orca are all the more thrilling for being unpredictable. Dolphins and orca are social creatures with complex group relationships, and are used to large areas of open water. Isolated and confined in small pools, bottlenose dolphins have "committed suicide" by smashing their heads against the sides or by simply stopping breathing. Here, in the wild, they came and stayed with the boats only because they wanted to.

We could now see the orca approaching from the opposite direction. Orca have been known to kill and eat dolphins, and a tingle of anticipation and apprehension ran through us. "Maybe we'll see a feast," said Andy. No one wanted to see any harm come to the friendly, intelligent dolphins around us. Yet, as anyone who's been on a wildlife safari knows, the "kill" exerts a magnetic attraction. It's the ultimate wild experience.

It obviously didn't appeal to the dolphins. Suddenly they were off, skipping out of the bay at full speed. The orca declined to give chase and continued to swim peacefully.

It was time for us to head back, past the wooded coves and inlets of the bay, to the small town of Paihia, where we were given a hot drink to warm us up after our icy plunges. As we left the cafe, we could hear Andy telling everyone within earshot, "I touched one, I touched an orca."

WHERE TO FIND WHALES AND DOLPHINS

NEW ZEALAND

Dolphin Discoveries runs daily trips from Paihia and Russell in the Bay of Islands in northern New Zealand, about three hours drive north from Auckland. Four-hour trips cost between pounds 20 to pounds 30. Their telephone/fax number is 00 649 402 8234.

During the southern summer (October to March) similar trips run from other parts of New Zealand. Kaikoura in the South Island, in particular, is one of the best places in the world to see the enormous sperm whales.

ELSEWHERE

If you can't make it to New Zealand, don't despair. Whale- and dolphin- watching is a booming activity around the world, and you can do it in Australia, America, South Africa, Hawaii and Europe.

In the USA alone, more two than million people go on whale-watching trips each year. On the east coast, the best destination is probably Cape Ann, near Boston, where you can see humpback, fin and minke whales. Pacific grey whales, which each weigh up to 30 tonnes, can be seen all along the west coast of the United States and Canada as they migrate from winter breeding waters off Baja California in Mexico up to Alaska for the summer, returning in autumn. Newfoundland (for minke, fin and humpback whales), Hawaii (humpbacks) and the St Lawrence waterway (beluga, minke, fin and giant blue whales - the world's largest mammal) are other north American destinations; or you can swim with dolphins in the warm waters of the Bahamas.

Closer to home, you can spot dolphins and orca, humpback and minke whales around Iceland, see pilot and sperm whales around Tenerife, and dolphins in Gibraltar. And you can even find minke whales, orca, dolphins and porpoises along the west coast of Scotland, in the waters around the Inner Hebrides, although you'd need to be pretty warm-blooded to go swimming with them.

Discover the World runs whale and dolphin-watching trips to most of the destinations listed. Telephone: 016977 48361 . !

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