It's not often you get to board a luxurious catamaran and go in search of whales and dolphins with a marine biologist. Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari is an Auckland-run company — the only licensed operator acting out of a major city — with a strong focus on marine conservation and research, hence the biologist onboard, and the master of marine science working alongside her.
I remember back in the 90s in the Hauraki Gulf there'd be loads of boats out watching for dolphins and I always felt worried for their safety when they all seemed to converge on a pod at once in a way that seemed invasive. Not so on board the Safari's huge boat, which can hold up to 100 guests: there are strict protocols in place that adhere to the DOC rules ensuring the safety of our marine life. As a result, you can rest easy knowing you're not engaging in harassment of any species, or impacting on their wellbeing.
On a cold winter's day, there are just over a dozen of us aboard the Dolphin Explorer, which means we can spread out on the decks of the 65-foot vessel, where a well-stocked bar is swiftly opened for anyone after a drink or a snack. We head towards Rangitoto with the brisk salt air teasing our cheeks, the skipper keeping up a dynamic patter of information about the marine reserve.
We pause out in the channel towards Coromandel to participate in some "citizen science" where the crew show us how they measure the density of phytoplankton, checking for the health of the water. They do this on every single sailing, feeding their findings into a database that provides up-to-date information on the health of the Gulf and its surrounds. A sample of seawater is pulled up, and we all crowd round, peering at the tiny creatures quite visible in the brine, identifying the zooplankton from the phytoplankton on a special chart. I was surprised by how enchanting it was to see tiny organisms dancing round in a jar, and I wasn't the only one cooing over creatures that looked like tiny inchworms, and jellyfish — all the guests seemed equally engaged.
I was impressed by the way the marine biologist and her team had immediately engaged us all in the health of our ocean; it added a valuable educational angle to our trip, and made us feel less like consumers and more like custodians.
It was also a great way to kill time; I'd imagine there's a lot of pressure on a safari company to find dolphins and whales every day - deciding on where to head based on tip-offs and last-seen locations - but it didn't show, and we were cheerfully informed that if we missed out on seeing our mammal friends, we would be able to come out another day at no cost.
Cruising towards Coromandel we kept watch for gannets, who often herald that dolphins are near, and we learnt about the bird and mammal species that inhabit the stretch of water we travelled on. The Australasian Gannet is one of the finer birds you'll ever encounter at sea, and while we never chanced on the spectacle of them dive-bombing the fish community at furious speeds, the odd bird passed us on wing, glowing in the afternoon sunlight like a talisman.
Around three hours into our trip we struck gold — a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins materialised off the port side of the boat, and everyone leapt to the bow to watch them. I've been known to cry in the company of dolphins, but this time I grinned until my cheeks hurt. I had my sister with me; a lot of our childhood at sea was spent manning binoculars on dolphin watch, so to spend time with her in their company made me feel like a 6-year-old again.
The dolphins were enormous, with huge, deep scratches across their bodies, and they played in the bow waves for a long time, rolling over and examining us with keen eyes. Our marine biologist confirmed they are in fact taking the measure of you when they do that, and it was wonderful to crouch there, gazing into their intelligent eyes. There were juveniles amongst the pod, too, carefully being shepherded by their elders.
There wasn't a solemn face in the group when we turned round and headed back to port. We missed out on whales, but the dolphins and the cruise more than made up for it. It's a five-hour round trip on the Dolphin Explorer, which means in the winter you're treated to a dazzling display of Auckland City's twinkling lights in the dusk as you arrive back in, a magical way to round out a sea voyage.
Hauraki Gulf Marine Park fast facts:
• The marine park covers 1.2 million hectares, more than 50 islands and 6 marine reserves
• It's one of the most diverse marine parks in the world
• More than 25 per cent of the Southern Hemisphere's marine mammals have been seen in the Marine Park
• The park is visited by more than 20 per cent of the world's seabirds
• It's also home to the Critically Endangered Bryde's whale – one of only a handful of coastal populations of this species in the world
Check alert level restrictions before travel at covid19.govt.nz
A 4.5-hour eco-cruise with Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari leaves from the Viaduct Harbour and is priced from $99pp. whalewatchingauckland.com