Hector’s dolphins are insanely cute. They have Mickey Mouse-ear-fins. The calves are the size of a rugby ball. It’s pretty much unfair to other marine life.
These endangered dolphins are found only in New Zealand. The best place to swim with them is from the gorgeous little French-influenced village of Akaroa, out on the Banks Peninsula. It’s around 45 minutes drive from Christchurch.
I’ve been out there multiple times now, booking dolphin swimming trips with Black Cat Cruises each time. I’m sure I’ll be back for more, too… in fact, I’m already organising another trip for next month. Hehe.
I always make little mental notes on how I can improve my photos on the next trip. But I have a bad memory. To counter that, I thought I’d write up some tips for myself here. Hopefully, some of you will find them helpful too. Or at least enjoy the photos.
Go visit our endemic mini-dolphins!
I used my Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera in a Nauticam housing, with my Panasonic 7-14 mm wide angle lens. Based on previous experience with other dolphin species, I assumed that they wouldn’t come too close to me, so I set the zoom to 10 mm.
I was wrong.
Multiple dolphins shot by within touching distance, and I couldn’t fit the world’s smallest oceanic dolphin into the frame. Le sigh.
These little dolphins are friendly. The (lovely, informative) Black Cat crew were looking for “boat positive” dolphins, i.e. the ones that would greet swimmers with whistles of joy. We found plenty.
Did I mention they’re awesome?
So zoom out. Go wide, or perhaps even fisheye. I’ll use the 7-14 mm again on the next trip, at 7 mm.
The dolphins are also fast. I set my E-M1 on shutter priority, at 1/250 sec, and I think 1/320 sec or even higher would be a safer bet. I was on high-speed, continuous mode (10 frames per second with the E-M1), with multi-area autofocus set.
Forget manual mode. The dolphins come tearing through and literally circle around you before shooting off to say hi to the next person, so there is little time for adjustments. I was basically pointing the camera at the dolphins and letting it do the thinking.
The updated version of my camera, the E-M1 mkII, is even faster with improved autofocus. Useful. Something like a Nikon D500, with great continuous autofocus, would probably be perfect for this kind of shooting.
Here’s my travel buddy Sarah Stein Greenberg in action:
Above the water
Black Cat’s “Cat 2” vessel is an excellent photography platform. Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly well-prepared for topside shots. I’ll have to rectify that on the next trip.
The dolphins will swim over to check out the boat, jump around, bowride and generally have a good time. My Olympus was in the housing, so I was using my Sony RX100 mkIII for topside snaps. It did pretty well, set on shutter priority at 1/1250 sec to freeze motion, but the E-M1 – with its fast focus lock and extremely quick frame rate – would have been better.
It’s worth thinking about polarising filters for topside stuff. I don’t actually own any at the moment, but I’ll look at picking up one for each lens for the next trip. I routinely regretted not having polarisers on this jaunt.
Planning your trip
Akaroa is an easy (and gorgeous) drive over from Christchurch. I tend to use Rent a Dent for good rates on rental cars. I also noticed a few shuttle buses that linked Akaroa to the city.
The harbour is pretty:
There’s a summit drive that gives fantastic views around the Peninsula. Definitely worth a look.
Akaroa is a popular spot, so it’s a good idea to book accommodation (and the dolphin swimming) ahead of time. I use Booking.com for almost all my accommodation; their listing for Akaroa is here.
There’s a nice little deli, L’Escargot Rouge, close to the wharf where the dolphin trips leave from. Cookie dough brownies. Just sayin’.
I’ve been reading this book on the dolphins, which is absolutely brilliant if you’d like to learn more:
I’ve had a look at this one at the library, too. Also great:
If you’re keen to improve your underwater photography, this is my ultimate recommendation:
And if you’re new to New Zealand, Lonely Planet will give you a great introduction:
Hope you can make it down there! If you’re travelling specifically to see the dolphins, I’d recommend that you book a couple of days to give yourself the best possible chance for great photographs.
If you’d like to license any of these photos, they’re available for download here.
A note on links: some of these are “affiliate links”, which give me a small commission if you buy them via this page. It’s exactly the same price for you, but it gives me a ‘tip’ for the referral. Obviously greatly appreciated, as it allows for the purchase of more cookie dough brownie things. Nom.