Dolphins at the Bay of Islands

When my wife and I planned our final trip to New Zealand we wanted to observe dolphins at the Bay of Islands. This was something we had not done since 2004. Luckily the weather cooperated and we were able to book a couple of cruises leaving out of Paihia.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 267 mm, efov 721 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360

The first cruise was a general sightseeing outing which included a visit to the Hole in the Rock and some touring past a number of islands. Guaranteed dolphin viewing was also included. Being on a double-decker vessel with about 150 other passengers does present some challenges from a photography standpoint.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 267 mm, efov 721 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360

As readers who have been out on dolphin and whale watching cruises can attest, it is often difficult to capture much more than a distant fin cutting through the water. My immediate challenge was trying to time my photographs to get at least the blowholes of the dolphins visible.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 141 mm, efov 381 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-280

We stayed on the upper deck throughout the cruise. It was an open air deck which afforded views unobstructed by windows, but was a fair distance from the surface of the water.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 141 mm, efov 381 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-250

My wife loves watching dolphins and for the most part she didn’t even bother trying to capture any images. I did the best I could given the conditions and crowded deck. I watched for shapes just below the surface of the water, trying to anticipate when they may surface. This yielded a few decent images when some of the dolphins swam quite close to the boat as you’ll see in the next few images.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 178 mm, efov 481 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1000

I had to lean over the upper railing to get decent shooting angles of the dolphins.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 74 mm, efov 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-1250
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70 mm, efov 189 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-450

The next day we went on a dedicated dolphin watching cruise on a much smaller, single deck boat. This vessel was purpose-built for dolphin watching. It held a maximum of 35 passengers and offered the potential opportunity to swim with the dolphins.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 108 mm, efov 291.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-280

About 70% of the passengers had signed up to swim with the dolphins.  There is a very short time frame between dolphins being sighted and getting into the water with them. Most of the swimmers simply braved the cold water temperature (~ 19 Celsius / 66 Fahrenheit) rather than take the time to put on a wet suit.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70 mm, efov 189 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-450

Being on the smaller, purpose-built boat was a much better experience in terms of dolphin viewing. The captain was excellent, providing us with information on the various dolphin species as well as New Zealand regulations that control this type of cruise. This was especially important for the passengers that swam with the dolphins, as they are not allowed to touch the animals.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70 mm, efov 189 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-640

The design of the vessel allowed the viewing deck to be about a metre (~3 feet) from the surface of the water. At times the dolphins came so close to the boat that I had trouble framing them properly, even with my 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm backed off to 70 mm.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70 mm, efov 189 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-640

The New Zealand regulations specify how long a cruise boat can observe various species of dolphins, how close they may proactively approach a pod, and under what circumstances a short swim is allowed. For example, if a pod has calves, swimming with those dolphins is not allowed. In addition the viewing time is much more restricted so the calves can have sufficient feeding time with their mothers.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 267 mm, efov 721 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360

The dolphins seemed to enjoy being around humans and actively approached the boat in very playful moods. When joined by some of the passengers, the dolphins were most attracted to people who were quite active in the water.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 70 mm, efov 189 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360

My best image of the day happened when I tracked a dolphin which was swimming underwater along the side the boat. I captured a short AF-C run as it surfaced to breath. I shot in Manual mode with an Auto-ISO setting, using AF-C (Continuous Auto-Focus) with Subject Tracking. I chose a frame rate of 10 frames-per-second.

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in viewing more New Zealand information and photographs, you may enjoy our eBook, New Zealand Tip-to-Tip. It is available for purchase and download at a cost of $12.99 Canadian.

 

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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