New Zealand’s coast is home to nine species of dolphins including the Hector’s, Dusky and Bottlenose dolphin. It is one the best places in the world to experience these beautiful, intelligent creatures in their natural habitat as a great deal of effort is made to support conserving their habitat.

During our time here dolphin sightings have become somewhat of a regular occurence. We have had a chance to swim, surf and kayak with dolphins and each time it was just as magical. If you’re visiting New Zealand you should try to experience some of its unique wildlife, so we thought we’d share our list of our favorite dolphin experiences in New Zealand.


1. Swimming with Dusky dolphins in Kaikoura

If you are a marine life lover, Kaikoura is the place for you! It is New Zealand’s leading eco-tourism destination that attracts many species of whales, dolphins, seals and marine birds to its waters. What makes it unique is a deep undersea canyon just offshore combined with unusual sea currents that attracts an extraordinary abundance of marine life providing a great food source for whales, dolphins and seals.

While there are a number of marine life experiences in Kaikoura, likely the most famous is getting a chance to swim with Dusky Dolphins with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura. We had an opportunity to go on the 5:30am sunrise swim during the Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism Instameet in October and it was absolutely magical!

This tour is completely dependant on the behavior of these wild mammals. They are not trained or baited with food. The boat simply cruised up and down the shores hoping to catch a glimpse of a pod swimming by and if the dolphins are in a playful mood, they will often follow to play in the wake of the boat.

Once a pod was sighted and their behaviors looks promising, the captain gave the signal and we jumped in the water and were surrounded by dozens of these incredible creatures! Dusky dolphins are known for their acrobatic and interactive behavior so they tend to be quite curious and swim very close often circling you if you play along.


This was by far the most intimate experience we had with dolphins in New Zealand. Being right in the water and getting to ‘play’ with them you really get a chance to connect with these amazing mammals! If you have ever dreamed of swimming with dolphins, this is the experience for you!


2. Kayaking with Bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound

Back in March 2014 we spent 3 days exploring Doubtful Sound by kayak. Doubtful Sound is one of two accessible fiords in New Zealand however requires a bit more work to get there over the more famous Milford Sound. During our first day on the water we had the most incredible, unexpected and natural dolphin experience yet!

While paddling along the shores before crossing the sound into Crooked Arm to setup camp, we spotted what looked like a few dolphins ahead. Excited to get a closer view, Jordan and I paddled as fast as we could and before we knew it we were surround by over a dozen Bottlenose Dolphins!

kayak doubtful sound

Our guide Seb yelled “they like when you paddle fast!” so we pushed hard to keep up speed as they swam in the wake of our kayak! I will never forget this moment. My heart was racing over the next 15mins as we paddled amongst this pod of dolphins, coming so close they even bumped the front of the kayak. They also started to really put on a show with a number of them leaping several metres out of the water!

This was definitely a once in a lifetime experience and one I cannot guarantee you’ll get if you kayak in Doubtful Sound – but you’ll never know if you don’t try! (If you’re not convinced, watch the video below!)


3. Surfing with Hector’s dolphins in Curio Bay

Unique to only New Zealand’s waters, Hector’s dolphins are one of the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world! At no more than 1.5m long, these little guys LOVE to play in the shallow waters at Curio and Porpoise bays. This species of dolphin are a distinctive grey with white and black markings, a short snout and a rounded black dorsal fin.

Hector Dolphin curio bay

These playful dolphins can be seen from the shores at the Curio Bay campsite and are most active in the morning. We rented wetsuits and surfboards from the guys at Caitlins Surf  and went off to catch some waves with the dolphins!

As we paddled out through the waves, we could see about a dozen Hector’s dolphins playing in the surf, leaping out of the waves and cruising along until they broke on shore! They loved it!! They were a curious bunch too and often swam up and around us while we were chilling out on our boards getting so close you could almost touch them!

The most exciting moment though was when Jordan caught a wave and as he looked down at the wave there was a dolphin surfing it right there with him!! How cool is that?? Definitely the coolest dolphin experience we had!

Hector Dolphin curio bay


4. Cruising with Bottlenose dolphins in Milford Sound

Now if you’re not quite up for swimming, kayaking or surfing with dolphins, if you make your way to Milford Sound there’s a very good chance you’ll get to spot them during a cruise! Southern Discoveries Nature Encounter Cruise is a great way to experience Milford Sound and some of its beautiful marine life. While it’s never guaranteed, a number of Bottlesnose dolphine pods frequent the sound and love to swim at the front of the boats.

Southern discoveries encounter cruise milford sound

There must have been a dozen that followed our boat for quite a while during the cruise, swimming so smoothly and leaping out of the water in excitement. A great way to see dolphins without having to get wet!


What’s your dream dolphin experience?