Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dolphins and Double Rainbows

New Zealand's beauty is relentless. I departed Auckland for Paihia, a small village on the Bay of Islands three hours north of the nation's largest city (1.5 out of the 4.1 million Kiwis live in the City of Sails) early this morning and the drive was spectacular. Lush forests and sprawling farmlands coexist seamlessly, alternating all along the Pacific coastline that remains nearby but invisible for most of the journey. The roads are extremely windy throughout, weaving through mountain passes. Here is a photo that captures it all quite well.

Our bus driver, Wes, was a Maori - the native people of New Zealand. It is astounding how many towns, expressions, and words that have Maori origins are universally adopted throughout the country. Add the fact that Maori is a national language, and you have a stark contrast from the United States. Imagine countless towns and terms in everyday life being from Cherokee descent, and Cherokee neighbors in communities nationwide. Tension does exist in some capacities between the Maori and English factions, but there exists an interesting integration of cultures here.

Fun facts about the Maori language: “wh” is pronounced as an “f,” the vowels are pronounced the same as in Spanish, every syllable ends in a vowel, and there are only twenty letters in the alphabet. 

We finally arrived at Paihia, a really cool hillside village right on the Bay of Islands. The weather was more than cooperative, and as you can see from this picture, presented ideal conditions for a day on the water. After walking through a local market of artists, I boarded our catamaran and we headed out to the Pacific in search of dolphins.

Bottom line: we got lucky. Incredibly lucky. After picking up passengers in Russell (the first capital of New Zealand from 1840-1845) across the bay, it was only a short trip out before we encountered a trio of dolphins at the helm of the boat. That was a close meeting in itself.

And then we got into the water for the first of three times this afternoon. The currents were strong, and I quickly became envious of the dolphins’ blowholes, with my own snorkel repeatedly filling up in water. But it was incredible.

The pod quickly increased in size when several other dolphins joined to play with their human visitors. They darted around and underneath us; keeping up required constant paddling and spinning in circles. Bottlenose dolphins are large creatures, and they swam only a few feet away from my outstretched arms. Trying to touch the dolphins turns out to be deceiving; you are so close, but never quite within reach. 

To keep the animals interested, we were told to make high pitch noises underwater. This worked for a time, but on each of our three trips into the water, when the dolphins were no longer entertained, they departed without hesitation. It all goes by so fast: just when you are getting settled in, you watch the dolphins submerge a few feet deeper, flip their tails, and dart out of sight.
One of the swimmers had an underwater camera, and hopefully he sends us his pictures soon. Meanwhile, the company photographer standing on top of the ship got this shot. Hard to believe that happened just a few feet away from us, and we were all too busy looking down at the dolphins beneath us to witness this. 

After our three trips into the water, we spent the remainder of our time on the water enjoying the sun, admiring the scenery around us, and looking for more dolphin pods. We did end up coming across a large pod on our way back in, numbering more than a dozen, with a couple of babies. People are not allowed to dive with pods that have babies, because dolphins are born without a layer of blubber; they nurse on their mothers twenty times every hour, and if swimmers were to distract them and they were to miss even a few feedings, they would die of hypothermia.

So this picture was more than amazing enough.

And here is just one of countless scenic shots that I snapped.

Short rain showers were frequent during our trip home, and when I looked out the window at one town, I saw not only the most brilliant rainbow I have ever seen, but also another faint rainbow arcing above it. A double rainbow!

A quick note about New Zealand's towns in the Northland. All residential areas look similar to those above - one-story, colorful roofs, no real cookie cutter pattern. The shops are something out of a PBS special teaching children about what they can find in town: there is one of everything, all the essentials, and not much else. Yet, each town we passed amazingly had its own college.

Finally, here is one more shot of the Auckland skyline.

That’s all for today. Off to fall asleep watching cricket (which I actually understand somehow, and is actually quite entertaining) between New Zealand and Zimbabwe, and then waking up early to return to the zoo for the morning. Tomorrow should bring some phenomenal shots, albeit in captivity, before I head to an offshore bird sanctuary on Thursday.

Kia ora!

(By the time all the photos uploaded, which took forever tonight, New Zealand won in dramatic style. They need 21 over 9 and had two non-power hitters in. A few rolling past the boundary and one sailing into the wall led to a dramatic win! The Zimbabwe bowler trying to close out the game was horrible all night. Go Kiwi!)

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