In Nature’s Playground
90 minutes’ scenic drive from central Christchurch, in Otautahi’s sprawling backyard lies the quaint and quirky seaside town of Akaroa. Sporting a permanent population of little over 600, this charming stop has all the flavour of a French Riviera in the south pacific. As the locals call it, this “Nature’s Playground” is overflowing with more wildlife than an Attenborough documentary and as cliché as it sounds, there’s something for all ages.
Out on the wharf, your ride awaits. Akaroa Dolphin Cruises run several outings daily beyond the heads of the harbour to encounter one of the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammals – the nationally vulnerable Hector’s dolphin. Prepare to be whisked away beyond the bay to a rugged world you won’t recognise. Hear stories of the precolonial Māori tribes who lived from the sea before colonial settlers staked claims to the antipodean paradise. Your captain doubles as tour guide, discussing how history of this settlement shaped the land, and shares his family’s fight to protect the endemic species for future generations to enjoy.
Aboard the catamaran, dolphins playfully navigate around the ship as you forge past Cormorant colonies, rare subspecies of the Little Blue Penguin and the southern-most enclave of rare Nīkau Palm. The boat carefully navigates into narrow coves to explore caves blown open by the wild sea, witness seals pups frolicking in the sun and spy the treacherous stairway to the Haylocks Bay Lighthouse.
It’s not often you find the world’s smallest penguin and the seabird with the world’s largest wingspan living within metres of each other, but that’s exactly what we have here in Waitaha Canterbury. Our geographic remoteness lends itself to unique species and habitats comparatively untouched – the appeal is obvious.
And not just appealing to all the native wildlife, but the inhabitants of the tight-knit town of Akaroa too. The Akaroa Dolphin Cruise family are exactly that -- a family. The Waghorns were formerly farming over the peninsula in Pigeon Bay, but Dad’s knees required easier terrain. With that, they sold up, bought a patch of paradise, and built in Akaroa. Mum, though semi retired, runs the info site sells tickets and merchandise and talks of how COVID did its best to knock them over. They built a custom boat perfect for tours, just before the outbreak. Fortunately, with the incredible support of local travellers, their business was able to continue as usual
As a ‘Crater Kid’, their daughter Julia felt the call back to the hills of the Banks Peninsula after time in Sydney and London, realising how important it was to leave the bay to better appreciate the scenery and serenity. Starting a family cemented Julia’s plans to move home, and joining the family business was a natural choice.
Julia - Akaroa Dolphins
We love our backyard and we want to share it with everyone. The family have worked hard to preserve, protect and maintain our slice of paradise. Offering this experience provides us with so much more than financial reward; it’s gives us great balance and we love helping guests reconnect with nature and experience this sense of tranquillity. We’re so lucky to live and work here, but we don’t own this place. We’re simply caretakers for our children’s children,"
“We love our backyard and we want to share it with everyone. The family have worked hard to preserve, protect and maintain our slice of paradise. Offering this experience provides us with so much more than financial reward; it’s gives us great balance and we love helping guests reconnect with nature and experience this sense of tranquillity. We’re so lucky to live and work here, but we don’t own this place. We’re simply caretakers for our children’s children,” says Julia.
The Waghorns fought with successive governments to create a marine reserve and protect the Hector’s dolphin habitat from overfishing and commercial operations. After 17 long years, the Akaroa Marine Reserve became the country’s newest reservation, stretching from Elephant Point within the harbour to Gateway Point spearheading The Amphitheatre, a natural landmark with a large hole for viewing through the rock, and an encapsulating bay protected from the southerly winds.
As you explore your way back into the ancient volcanic caldera, you’ll bare witness to the sheer force of nature. Once an ancient volcano, the Southern Ocean broke through the seawall creating the perfect habitat for our endangered dolphins seeking safe harbour in the warm, shallow waters Akaroa has today.
Keep your eyes peeled for the ‘Mickey Mouse ear’ fins, as families of dolphins shepherd you back to shore safely. For a truly memorable wildlife experience for the entire family, be sure to book well in advance. Weather conditions change constantly and the Waghorns are here to help you have the greatest experience. For more visit Akaroa Dolphins.