June 13, 2011 at 11:23 PM
During our last week in New Zealand, our group of Penn State and Virginia Tech students really got to experience the marine life, as well as the offshore and mainland island sanctuaries, which is something we have all been waiting for.
Saturday, we split into two groups and went hiking and kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. This is New Zealand's smallest national park and is along a beautiful coastline filled with pockets of sandy beaches. After hiking the coast for a few hours my group got suited up to go kyaking. While paddling on the open water, we went around some predator-free offshore island sanctuaries. These islands help the population of endangered birds grow without the threat of invasive predators. The bird's songs were loud, but beautiful to hear. The only downside to this day trip: it rained the entire time. My group was out on the ocean kayaking for around three hours in what seemed like a monsoon.
Monday, we made the trip to Kaikoura. Along the way we stopped to take a five minute hike to a waterfall where there are baby seals, and the site was unbelievable. There were hundreds of pups splashing in the water. They were so close to us, and some of them even decided to check us out, coming within a foot of onlookers.
Once we reached Kaikoura, we walked the coastline to observe grown seals in their natural habitat. Again, we were able to come within feet of these animals to get an up close and personal experience.
The next day, we were given the chance to really understand the Maori culture. The Maori's are the native people who came to New Zealand some 800 years ago, before Europeans arrived. We learned a waiata (Maori song) and went on a walk through the woods with the Maori, who told us about each plant and how it was used in ancient Maori times. It was very interesting hearing the Maori talk about their ancestors and how they used to live compared to their lives today. It was a great experience because we finally were able to get down to the roots of New Zealand's culture.
Wednesday was the day that we had all been waiting for: our dusky dolphin encounter. When we woke up in the morning it was raining again, and a lot of us were bummed because we didn't think we would be able to swim with the dolphins. The despair increased once we arrived at Encounter Kaikoura and learned that the day before they could not locate the dolphins.
We got suited up anyway and went out to search for the dolphins on the Pacific Ocean. Our luck changed dramatically after about 20 minutes out on the boat. First, our group sited a Humpback whale, and within the next 10 minutes we saw a Sperm whale. This was all very cool, but our main focus was to keep looking for the dolphins.
Then, finally, we saw them.
Even more spectacular, they were swimming with Orca whales. It was odd, because dolphins are the main food source for Orca, and also because it is very late in the season to see Orca in Kaikoura. Our guide coundn't stress enough how unusual this was, but such a treat for all of us. We couldn't swim with the dolphins while the Orca were around, so we traveled 20 minutes south of our location. Then we were able to slide into the freezing Pacific Ocean to hang out with wild dolphins. We were told to sing to them to keep them interested in us, and surprisingly, they really responded to "Hey Jude" by The Beatles.
Today is our last day in New Zealand, and I think I can speak for Penn State and Virgina Tech when I say it is going to be a bittersweet farewell.
This country is one we explored with no boundaries; trekking through the bush and hiking to the top of mountains made us feel invincible. For the rest of our lives we are going to remember the times we spent together and the experiences we shared. We all really made a connection traveling, but our love for New Zealand will keep us bonded.