Swimming with Hector's dolphins in Akaroa

Nager avec les dauphins d'Hector à Akaroa @ Laetitia Scuiller
Nager avec les dauphins d'Hector à Akaroa @ Laetitia Scuiller
Nager avec les dauphins d'Hector à Akaroa @ Laetitia Scuiller
Nager avec les dauphins d'Hector à Akaroa @ Laetitia Scuiller
Nager avec les dauphins d'Hector à Akaroa @ Hervé Bré

Swimming with wild dolphins in their natural habitat is a dream that can be realised in a few specific places on the planet. But swimming with Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori), which are considered the smallest and rarest dolphin species in the world, in the magical setting of the Banks Peninsula marine sanctuary, is a unique privilege!
However, swimming in the middle of the Banks Peninsula, in cold and sometimes rough and trouble water, depending on the season, remain a privilege which has to be earned!

Encounter with one the rarest dolphin species

Situated some 80 km from Christchurch, the Banks Peninsula stretches over 1,120 km². It was formed 9 million years ago following the eruption of an extinct ancient volcano whose crater has been submerged by the sea. This sheltered sound is home to the population of Hector’s dolphins and the port of Akaroa is where the first and last French colons settled down.

Magical interaction with Hector’s dolphins

There is suddenly some degree of excitement on the forward deck: a first fin, then a second one and a third, and finally eight dolphins show their rostrum! Hector’s dolphins can be easily identified by their round-shaped dorsal fins, which look like Mickey Mouse ears, a triangular black mask on the side of their faces and their beautiful coat with subtle spots. Hector’s dolphins are robust and compact in size. Their body length does not exceed 1m50. The boat is now surrounded by a shoal of a dozen dolphins which seem to take interest in our presence. The skipper reduces the boat’s speed to a minimum and we wait for his signal before getting into the water. We have barely entered the water that the sea mammals start gliding among the swimmers before kicking underwater and resurfacing a few minutes later. We were all amused and astonished, it is hard to know which way to look and we try to spot them, sometimes through the troubled water, other times at the water surface, where the guide points us in the right direction. The moment is so intense that none of the swimmers complains of the cold water temperature – 13 °C. After hearing a blow right behind me, I only have time to put my head under the water when a dolphin brushes up against me and immediately moves away. Hector’s dolphins are a gregarious species and they can often be seen in groups of 8 to 20 individuals. These curious and playful creatures can be quite active with swimmers while keeping their distances. The less they move, the greater the chances for swimmers to see their new friends approaching. Those who try to follow them or to approach them will always be unsuccessful!

The usefulness of tourism in safeguarding dolphins

After a three-quarter-of-an-hour interaction with these lovely mammals, we get back on the boat with our hearts filled with joy and the memory card of our camera loaded with pictures. There is an abundance of comments and laughter across the boat; an energising euphoria now unites the swimmers, who are aware of the privilege they had to experience a unique encounter. Our guide is not at all surprised by this vibration of emotions and continues with the debriefing session. He seizes the opportunity to sensitise us about the vulnerability of this species. There are currently two known subspecies of this dolphin endemic to New Zealand. We have encountered Hector’s dolphins, which live off South Island in three genetically distinct populations, totalling some 7,270 individuals (Dawson et al. 2004; Gormley et al. 2005).

For their part, Maui’s dolphins live around North Island and the population of the species counts no more than 100 animals! It is actually one of the most threatened cetacean species in the world. Besides pollution, disturbance caused by humans, diseases and the degradation of habitats, incidental captures in gillnets are the biggest threat to these dolphins. Due to the continuous decline in population – 74% over 3 generations – the IUCN has listed the species as ‘critically endangered’. Hence the interest of monitoring the population and studying their long-term behaviour changes. ‘Does swimming with dolphins have a negative impact on the population?’ worryingly asks one of the passengers. According to our guide, as long as regulatory measures relating to approaching dolphins are complied with and the dolphins themselves continue to visit tourists, the impact remains very limited.

Exemplary collaboration between scientists and tourism operators

The Otago University professors, Liz Slooten and Steeve Dawson, are considered the sea mammal specialists in New Zealand. Drawing on her experience with dolphins and some 15-year collaboration with Black Cat Cruise, Liz Slooten has the legitimacy to say that tourism helps in safeguarding Hector’s dolphins in the Banks Peninsula. She firmly believes that swimming with dolphins activities have a positive impact both for tourists and for the animals themselves. ‘You just have to look at the faces of people who see a dolphin for the first time, especially such a rare and remarkable species as the Hector’s dolphin, to realise that the experience can only move them and some of them will want to support the conservation actions in place for this species by donating money or by signing petitions, like the one that is circulating to request the government to extend the marine sanctuary. Even if it’s a small percentage of them, it is worth the effort.’

To date, tourism has not had a negative impact on the presence of dolphins in the bay. A few years ago, the keepers of the sanctuary expressed concern over the decline in temporary frequentation by dolphins and wondered if it was linked to tourism. Liz Slooten’s students reading for a Masters degree or a PhD have conducted a variety of complementary research studies in order to monitor the behaviour of dolphins and their frequentation of the bay over a number of years. No link has been confirmed with tourist excursions. ‘We provide feedback on our research to tourism operators as quickly as possible in order to avoid them having to wait for official publications and to allow direct use of the information, both at the level of biology and conservation of the species.’

For more than 20 years, between 1986 and 2006, researchers have conducted a variety of research studies on the morphology and distribution of Hector’s dolphin populations, including a photo-identification programme to estimate their survival and reproduction rates as well as their migration patterns. Acoustic data loggers are also used to know the amount of time spent by dolphins in the ports of North and South Islands while demographic analyses are undertaken on a regular basis to assess population trends.

Ultimately, the biologists manage to identify reliably 462 animals by their wounds, from the small marks on their dorsal fins to the large scars caused by shark attacks.

The survival rate of this dolphin species has improved by 5.4% since the setting up of the MPA

The team subsequently analysed the photographic observations using the catch-marking-remarking statistical approach and a classical population evaluation method in order to assess the impact of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) on Hector’s dolphins living in the surroundings. The results showed that the survival rate of this dolphin species has improved by 5.4% since the setting up of the MPA. This is a first in the field of marine ecology! According to Liz Slooten, ‘This study represents the first empirical evidence of the efficiency of MPAs in protecting endangered sea mammals.’ However, while the survival rate has improved significantly, the growth rate is unfortunately not high enough to prevent the continued reduction in population.

The importance of the size of MPAs

Certain fishing methods are banned or restricted within MPAs and the latter are often used to help prevent any accidental catch of sea mammals. To date, there was barely any empirical evidence of their efficiency, hence the importance of measuring their impact to justify their setting up. In addition to providing the first concrete evidence of the usefulness of MPAs, the study conducted by Liz Slooten’s team demonstrates the importance of long-term ecological monitoring. ‘The estimation of the evolution of the population of sea mammals often requires several years of research to produce data that is precise enough to identify the types of biological changes,’ says the marine biologist. ‘But the study also shows that the MPAs must be vast enough to be efficient.’ We know today that the efficiency of MPAs depends on their surface area.

Things to remember

A sanctuary for sea mammals ★★★

The cruise starts in the beautiful little port of Akaroa, meaning the ‘long harbour’ in Maori language.

The outing is carried out within the sea mammal sanctuary that has been set up in 1989 around the Banks Peninsula.

An operator involved in the safeguard of the environment  ★★

The activity is limited to a maximum of 12 passengers and to 45 minutes in the water in order to limit the pressure on the animals. The supervising staff are particularly vigilant regarding the way swimmers behave with the dolphins. A comprehensive and informative briefing session on the way to approach the animals is held before getting into the water. It is strictly forbidden to touch the dolphins or to follow them. The interaction consists in letting them approach if they want. Black Cat Cruises is one of the largest operators in the region and has pledged to support the local community and limit its impact on the environment. They work closely with the marine biologists, Steve Dawson and Liz Slooten, who have been studying this rare species for over 25 years. This couple of specialists has managed to set up of a marine sanctuary in the Banks Peninsula. One percentage of the price of each ticket sold by Black Cat Cruise – amounting to not less than NZ$ 70,000 each year – is used to finance sea mammal conservation projects.

Various awards: New Zealand Tourism Awards in 2003, Green Globe 21, Skal International Ecotourism Award.

A well managed eco-responsible activity ★★

The company has stable catamarans with a stern platform with a ladder to get in the water easier, the boat being equipped with a jet-power engine which has the advantage of running without a propeller. The small and fast catamarans (with a maximum speed of 25 knots) can rapidly reach the head of the bay, where dolphins are most of the time, the inside cabin is heated in winter, a ramp for disabled access has been installed on board the catamarans in order to allow people with limited mobility or in wheelchairs to embark and disembark in all safety.

The company guarantees a partial refund of NZ$ 100 if no dolphin is sighted and NZ$ 50 if dolphins are sighted but sea conditions do not allow for getting into the water. During the last 12 months, the team was able to sight dolphins during 98% of its cruises and organised encounters in the water in 81% of cases.

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