Auckland: Our backyard aquarium

By Virgil Evetts

Virgil Evetts is wowed by some incredible sea life, including whales, all seen with Auckland cityscape in the not-too-far distance.

Orca are an unexpected delight so close to the city. Photo / Supplied
Orca are an unexpected delight so close to the city. Photo / Supplied

There is nothing at all mystical about whales and dolphins. But nevertheless, they are beautiful, awe-inspiring creatures, and seeing them in their natural environment - as opposed to some tawdry theme park - is one of life's unforgettable experiences.

Kaikoura is usually regarded as the be-all-and-end-all of whale watching in New Zealand but, as I discovered on the Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari one limpid autumn day, the Hauraki Gulf is home or thoroughfare to some 25 species of marine mammals, including more than a few of the "thar-she-blows" variety.

Departing from the Viaduct Harbour, we were quickly cutting through the mill-pond stillness (rather atypically) of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, prowling for things flippery. By way of cheerful commentary we were told about the various mammals we were likely to see, such as common dolphins, Bryde's (a Norwegian word, pronounced "brooders") whales, and orca.

These species are semi-permanent residents in the park, whereas others including sperm, humpback and even blue whales, are known to pass through on their annual migrations.

The trick to finding whales, we were told, is to look for birds. Whales and dolphins (often in tandem) work together to corral schools of baitfish towards the surface. This attracts the attention of sharp-eyed seabirds, which start picking off startled fish en masse. Armed with this knowledge, we were so busy looking for roiling waters and diving gannets on the horizon that we almost failed to notice the two dozen-odd common dolphins that had surrounded the boat. They were riding our wake, leaping into the air and scooting under the hull at break-neck speed. I assume they have necks in there somewhere. Not a bit mystical, I'm afraid but very, very cool.

As is their way, the dolphins charmed us completely for upwards of an hour before abruptly changing course at full throttle and disappearing. Apparently schools of up to 300 common dolphins have been sighted in the Gulf in recent years. But now, bereft of entertainment, our engines were cut and the horizon scoured once again. And within minutes we struck gold. Well, grey anyway. Far in the distance two great plumes appeared, suspended above the surface, slowly collapsing, and then rising again. Whales. Actual, honest-to-science-whales. Just out there. Who knew?

Bouncing over the waves and all eyes locked-on, within minutes we were up close and personal with a pair of gorgeous Bryde's whales. Resembling (at a mere nine metres) relatively bijou blue whales, the pair carried on gulping down mouthfuls of fish-laden sea water, with near-deafening gasp and slaps, apparently quite disinterested in our arrival. Also in attendance were dozens of dolphins, picking off escapees, and hundreds of gannets, dropping like stones into the fray. And the closer we looked the more life we saw, including penguins, petrels, and according to our skipper, a large shark. I've seen some pretty remarkable natural phenomena on my travels, but this comes close to trumping them all. It was made all the more impressive by happening in what is figuratively my backyard.

Eventually the hapless baitfish were devoured or dispersed, and the whales, after circling the boat a few times, went on their way, quickly followed by the dolphins. We were left stunned and elated. An extraordinary few hours on a stretch of water I thought I knew so well.

I remain resolute though: whales and dolphins possess no secret knowledge or eerie powers. They're just beautiful wild animals, with no need of metaphysical embellishment.

Spending a little time in their presence is a privilege and a thrill of the highest order.

What you need to know

The crew aboard the comfortable and very speedy Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari catamaran are a skilled and passionate lot. They know the gulf like the back of their hands and its incumbent fauna even better. Customer service is taken very seriously and so too is the health of the Marine Park. Woe betide anybody seen tossing litter overboard.

Although light snacks can be purchased onboard, a packed lunch and plenty of water is recommended. Take both sunscreen and warm clothing, as the Gulf is a fickle and changeable environment. Seasickness tablets might come in handy too.

W&DS boasts sightings of whales on around 75 per cent and dolphins on 90 per cent of all trips. The company provides a Lifetime Dolphin Viewing Guarantee, so on those rare occasions that nothing shows up, you can return again and again until nature delivers the goods.

Phone: 0800 397 567
Website: explorenz.co.nz
Email: info@explorenz.co.nz
Admission: Adults: $155, Children: $105, Family (2 adults/2 children): $399
Trip duration (approximately): 4.5 hours
Departure: From Viaduct Harbour. May-September at 12pm; October-April at 1.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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