Did you know that dolphins are attracted to people singing? Neither did I until I got chatting to my friend and journalist Niki Waldegrave about her experience swimming with dolphins in Nelson Bay about two and a half hours drive from Sydney. Thankfully she was so thrilled with her day out with the pointy-nosed ones and Dolphin Swim Australia she said she’d write it about it for me…so, here goes. Over to Niki.
What Makes Dolphin Swim Australia Different?
The main difference is that Instead of ‘swimming’ in a chlorinated pool with dolphins in captivity, the five-hour interaction with Dolphin Swim Australia sees you entering their world, offshore, in the crystal-clear waters of the Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park.
Here, hundreds of curious short-beaked common and oceanic bottlenose dolphins swim past you, under you and over you within touching distance.
But they do it because they want to, not because anyone is feeding them or has trained them to do so – no wonder Ecotourism Australia refer to it as the experience where dolphins swim with humans rather than the other way round!
It’s the only swim of its kind – you cannot do this anywhere else in the world.
It’s an Early Start Though
Meeting at 5.30am sharp at d’Albora Marina ready for a 5.45am departure on-board the 15.8-metre catamaran, manager Adam Wiltshire, a blonde Harry Styles lookalike – much to the joy of all the females on-board – reveals how his job is “a dream come true”.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” he smiles as we don our wetsuits and get onto the boat. “We get to spend the best part of the day on the water, surrounded by dolphins. They’re so friendly and curious, and some of the pods will stay with us for hours, other times we might swim with several different pods a day – and they love a good singsong.”
Yep, there’s singing
Matty Maccabe, one of the swim assistants – and DSA’s unofficial Mr Motivator – claims “the louder you sing in the water, the more dolphins will swim to you”.
“It’s true,” he says. “By their very nature they’re sociable and curious creatures, so we start making some noise when we see them, and if you can keep singing loudly when you get in the water, they’ll flock to you.”
As the sun rises and we motor away from land, the guests tuck into the complementary on-board tea and coffee while the crew run through the safety instructions and let us know what to expect from the day – in a nutshell, five-to-six hours of exhilarating fun.
“Although we have had lots of tears,” laughs Adam, who is also a certified PADI divemaster and qualified SSI freediver. “Some people get really emotional, and others have jumped overboard the minute they see their first dolphin. But the best way to do it is relax and take it in your stride. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to jump in with them, we’ve never had a day where the dolphins haven’t wanted to play.”
Once we get out into the bay, we are surrounded by what looks like thousands of dolphins, in pods of various sizes in every direction as far as the eye can see. They’re swimming in front of us, around us, leaping out of the water, and riding the bows of the catamaran.
As everyone scrambles to grab cameras and phones, Matty runs to the front and starts singing and shrieking, asking which of the six groups they’ve put us into wants to go first?
Showtime, we’re up!
While the run through of showing us what to do – put your mask and snorkel on and shuffle down into the net at the front of the boat, before jumping into the water on the count of three, turning round and holding on to a rope stretched between the two bows of the catamaran as it is moving along – sounded easy enough, it’s a bit clumsy in practice.
As we’re poised and ready, one girl cracks a nervous joke about sharks – not ideal when someone else on deck begins singing the Jaws ‘der-der’ theme tune, but we’re off, one big splash and we’re in!
Under the water, the first few seconds are daunting as you get your bearings, try not to swallow any water in the snorkel and realise the boat is going reeeeaaaaallly fast… and then ‘whoosh’, what was that?
I’m on edge of the group, on the outside far right and within about five seconds I see them, maybe 20-or-so dolphins of all sizes swimming with us. Under us, in front, next to us. One is swimming so close to me with its calf I feel like I could reach out and touch it.
I try, and have visions of being swept to the back of the boat and made into mincemeat by the propeller. Yeah, might not do that again!
All the while we’re doing this, Matty is making as much noise as he can under the water and signalling us to sing. I crank out Oasis through my snorkel– you never know, right?
Suddenly another dolphin swims right up from under me, shoots in front and poos in my face. Chunderwall, never mind Wonderwall – there’s a first for everything!
More dolphins join us in the water, which is crystal clear for maybe 20 metres or so around us.
The sun’s rays filter down through the water and it’s very calm and celestial, despite the ‘singing’. It’s actually very emotional, especially when you can hear the dolphins singing back, and some of the same ones keep coming in for a closer look.
We spend about 20 minutes in the water with our new friends, and then as the dolphins start to lose interest, we hop back onto deck for a cuppa while we find the next pod for the second group.
Why We Chose Dolphin Swim Australia?
We liked the fact that you go to the dolphins rather than them coming to you – plus, it’s endorsed by Tourism NSW, The Marine Parks Authority NSW and NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service who granted DSA’s permit after stringent examination of its swim protocols and safety management, and Dr Carol Scarpaci, a leading authority and government adviser on dolphin and whale tour-boat operations, monitored DSA for three years.
Her research showed unprecedented levels of compliance by DSA with Australian laws and regulations, confirming the never chase or harass the dolphins, and that no harm comes to any of them as a result of the swims.
“The key is finding dolphins who genuinely want to play,” explains Adam as we spot a large pod. “Those ones are following that trawler – they’re hungry and hunting food so they’re not interested in us. But look around, there are plenty more.”
How much does it cost to swim with the dolphins in Nelson Bay?
For more information or to book, visit the Dolphin Swim Australia website or call 1300 721 358. The four-hour trip (5-10am) is suitable for those aged 7-70 and costs $329. Observers $70, and you can purchase your customised underwater video for $65.
DSA can’t guarantee water interaction with the cetaceans on each trip and offer free return trips to those who might miss out, but to date, they’ve not had to cash them in.
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