Passage from Stewart Island to Dunedin (South Island)
And our first sighting of Hector's Dolphins
After I had done the work of swapping over the sails, I was tidying up when I spotted a dolphin streaking by. It was lit up by and streaming a trail of bright bioluminescence. The turbulence clearly lit up its snout, fin, flippers and fluke. The pattern of light made it look like a small, greenish, rocket-powered orca. It was actually easier to track its every graceful maneuver in the pitch black night than in the daytime, when glare and shadow make them hard to see under the surface. Eventually, five others joined in. They wove a tapestry of bioluminescence as they zigzagged across each other’s trails, vying for the best spot between the hulls. They really seem to like it there. They stayed for over an hour until we were overtaken by a brightly lit cruise ship with a much bigger wake to play in and they were off to try to catch it.
In the daytime, we were followed by several Great Southern Albatross. They are such masters of their element. Their prominent brow line gives their faces the regal seriousness of eagles. One Guy, while doing slow figure-eights around the boat, actually made one pass around the spinnaker, then between the mast and the furled jib. He then came abeam the cockpit and just held position there for a minute or two before doing another circuit. I was standing at the helm with my head through the opening in our bimini. We were as close to eye-to-eye as his wingspan would allow.
It gave me déjà vu from my time flying gliders. It’s common for glider pilots to use soaring birds to help find thermals and vice versa. Usually, when thermalling, there would be one or two circling with me as I climbed. Usually, the birds were vultures, with an occasional hawk thrown in. Once, though, I was surprised by a big Golden Eagle who came in from behind and then settled into the upwash ahead of my left wing, just abeam the cockpit. He stayed parked in that spot for ten full minutes as we climbed a couple thousand feet together as close to eye-to-eye as we could get.
When my albatross friend left his spot by the cockpit, I made a point of watching him. He circled Begonia left and right, climbed over the mast and dove ahead of the faces of the waves. Mostly, he was so close to the water that he had to pull up to have enough height for his wingover turns. I watched this bird for another twelve minutes, spinning around in my spot to follow his motion. Not one time during the entire time I was concentrating on that one bird did I see him flap – not once! The other albatross were the same. They were often shadowed by Titi (Sooty Shearwaters), who are also very agile themselves, but will occasionally flap two or three times to keep up. I decided I was going to stare at my guy until I saw him flap, which is how I know how long it was. I was timing him.
I never saw it. He eventually put out his feet and skidded to a stop right next to Begonia. Then he folded his wings without a beat. When we got too far ahead, I saw him spread his wings, give the wave crest a little kick and then launch himself back into the air without so much as a twitch that could be perceived as the tiniest of flaps. I watched a bit longer, but then dinner was ready and I had to give up to eat.
Before we got to Dunedin, we got to see more cool animals. Just outside the Otago Harbor entrance, we were joined by a pod of Hector’s Dolphins. They are New Zealand’s only endemic dolphin and they are pretty rare. We are so lucky to have been able to see them. They are in the smallest family of dolphins, which seems to increase their adorableness, along with their distinctive rounded dorsal fin. They were just a little bigger than a suitcase.
We made it to Dunedin just in time for the last of the flood into Otago Harbor. The Yacht Club at the far end is only accessible at the top half of the tide, even for us and it had just started to fall when Barry, the caretaker, took our lines and warmly welcomed us to his club.