A dolphin encounter of the calamitous kind

Last week I sustained a mild but unfortunate injury after a freak accident involving a Lonely Planet New Zealand guide.

As I flopped into bed and pulled the duvet cover over my tired body, I failed to realise that the hefty book was laying on top of the covers and inadvertently managed to flip it up into my face, where its hard spine met my right eye with a thump.

Fortunately, I have never been punched in the face before but I imagine the feeling is similar to the sensation I felt that very minute. I cried a bit, applied a cold compress and then woke up the next morning with a lump that has now been cleverly camouflaged with makeup.

Another bizarre injury to add to the list.

You see, travel and calamity always seem to go hand in hand with me, as a flick through one of my travel diaries in 2006 reminded me…

Monday 23 October 2006
Riverview Lodge, Christchurch, New Zealand

What an awesome start to the day! Slept well here in the Riverview Lodge as the bed is soft and comfy with a gorgeous verdant throw and huge fluffy pillows. The owner Ernst (great name) had prepared a breakfast of fruit salad and homemade granola and said I was Queen Nicola. Hmm, should I be worried, is that weird? Anyway, I can see the sleepy River Avon out of the view from my window and I have grown quite attached to Christchurch with its old-English feel.

I’m now on my way to Kaikoura for whale watching and the booked-in-advance Kaikoura Swim with Dolphins, something I have always wanted to do since I was a child. It’s just me and two very pretty Japanese girls so far. Due to a mild fear of being in the water, I am feeling a little nervous but very excited. I’m sure everything will be absolutely fine.


Oh God, how is it humanly possible to still feel nauseated. I now remember exactly why I am not, and never will be, a water baby.

Travel to the town of Kaikoura was fantastic. It was snug and warm on the coach as we travelled along the coastal route and I caught sight of its incredible vista – the captivating mountain range provided some dramatic scenery and the peninsula that jutted out towards the Pacific Ocean was majestic. It created an incredible back drop to our view of the humpback whales lifting out of the water and crashing back down again with a graceful thud.

We had an hour to look around the small settlement of Kaikoura, the base for our dolphin swimming, so I made use of some perusing time on the Esplanade, and bought some very nice Roxy jeans. I have absolutely no idea where I’ll wear them in good old Blighty in fear of looking like an extra from Home and Away, but while in Australasia, do as the Australasian’s do. I met a very nice American couple, Sharon and Dean, who I sat next to during the pre-swim educational video. I paid attention to every single word of that video, wanting not only to know everything I could about these amazing marine mammals in their natural habitat but also to be fully prepared for a full-blown aquatic disaster.

When we were told that we needed to be ‘confident in the open ocean' and 'it is an advantage to have had previous snorkeling experience’ I nodded along confidently with everyone else, not wanting to share my fears with Sharon that I still hadn’t quite got over a traumatic experience in the Lazy River at The Water Palace, Croydon, in 1991 and if the truth be told I didn’t really like to get my hair wet.

We took a small bus to our boat, Delphinidae, a charming white and blue vessel. The sight of it bobbing up and down on the water prompted my stomach to do a small but noticeable flip, but I overlooked the flip and boarded the boat ready for my adventure.

Safety checks complete, wet suits zipped up tightly and snorkeling equipment distributed, we set off on our open ocean experience, across the choppy Pacific. Our instructor – British, very tall, with floppy Hugh Grant-esque hair and bags of enthusiasm - loved the sea, unlike me. 'Jeez it’s a bit rough today!' he said enthusiastically with a mildly irritating inflection suggesting he'd been out of the UK for a while. ‘You’re not kidding, Hugh’ I thought as the waves crashed against the boat and sprayed the back of my head with sea-foam. He repeated the very important instructions we'd heard in the video that I tried desperately to listen to as the bumpy ocean threw me from side to side, up and down off my seat and nearly over the edge. 'When you hear the siren that's your cue to go in the water slowly. Don't get too close to the dolphins, and if you need assistance just put your hand in the air and I'll come help you, no drama. Enjoy!’ shouted Hugh. Loudly.

Was it me or were the waves getting larger and more powerful? The open ocean experience was making me feel a little unnerved. That jutting peninsula was nowhere in sight and all I could see was miles and miles of ocean. A quick peek around at my fellow wetsuits revealed no other panicked faces so I tried to push to the back of my mind that I was feeling a bit crook. The Swedish girls looked tanned and blond, the epitome of ocean chic. The Aussies looked completely relaxed in their wetsuits, as if they were wearing a second skin.

I was so pale I was translucent, but at least I could be used as a makeshift buoy in case anyone needed something to hang onto in the water to attract attention. The wailing shriek of siren was our cue that Flipper and friends were here to play, so I flipped on over in my flippers and pulled the slightly too-tight mask over my head, creating a very interesting bouffant.

We headed excitedly to the edge of the boat and I prepared to lower myself down the boat's ladder into the water. All was going well until a wave of nausea rose up inside me, without warning. I desperately clambered back up the ladder and past the others as quickly as is humanly possible in big, wide fins where I proceeded to throw up in the nearest bucket. Four times. Yep, four.

It is quite possible that I have never been so ill, or so embarrassed in my life, as my fellow crew members splashed gaily around in the sea with the acrobatic dusky dolphins and I retched in a bucket as the boat bobbed up and down relentlessly and Hugh patted me on the back.

I like dolphins. I don’t eat tuna, but if I did, you can bet your life it would be dolphin-friendly. When I was a child I adopted a dolphin, Sundance, for Christmas (for life of course, not just for Christmas. Well until I was at least nine). Being a slightly less naive and far more cynical adult, I now realise of course that me and five hundred other kids had the same certificate, but in my eyes my £2 per month gave me sole ownership of Sundance. I have always dreamed of swimming with dolphins, so why oh why did my sea legs decide to wobble on this day?

The vomiting eventually ceased and I stood up slowly on teetering legs, looking out to the ocean. I talked to myself inwardly, a little motivational talk if you like. Nicola, your trip to NZ is going to be over soon, this may be your last chance to do this. Hold your head high, put a mask on it and shove that snorkel in your mouth. Get in that water!'. So I staggered determinedly to the sea, reassuring a concerned Hugh that I was indeed OK.

I lowered myself in and tried to put the sickness episode behind me. The ocean was cold and tasted salty in my parched mouth and I was finding it hard to kick my weak legs to stay afloat. Then it happened. A dolphin swam towards me and momentarily stopped; its sleek body just about visible under the wavy water. It looked at me, I looked at it and then it leaped above the water and started to swim away so I followed, remembering not to get too close. I swam alongside it, just for a couple of minutes but it was a perfect moment of solitude. I couldn't hear anything around me and I felt very at peace, like time had literally stopped. I was the dreamy nine-year old girl again, swimming alongside what may just have been my beloved adoptee. Then it was gone.

In its place my nausea returned to taunt me. I quickly realised I was far, far out to sea and I couldn't touch the bottom. The cold water shocked my body back to the present and I could feel the sickness rising up again to make yet another appearance. Hugh’s words echoed in my head 'put your hand in the air and I'll come help you, no drama'. So I waved my hand in the air frantically as I swam to the boats edge. Realising there was in fact a drama, I was ungracefully pulled onto the boat by one of the other instructors like a slippery, wet fish head first. I lifted my face, distorted by the huge snorkel mask, and whispered 'please can I have the bucket' before flopping back down again in defeat.

For the next five minutes, Hugh had the unfortunate task of emptying the bucket ready for the next onslaught, whilst simultaneously making small talk and congratulating me on my short but successful swim. He gently suggested I remove my wetsuit, as we both knew I was done for the day and we had at least another hour to go before being back on land. I was so ashamed, surely it couldn't get any worse than this.

So I attempted to get undressed as the boat continued to sway and I gulped down deep breaths of oxygen to overcome what was surely the undefeated world record for seasickness. I tried to get my fins off, but one big flipper refused to pop off my foot despite me ungracefully bending over and pulling on the bugger for dear life. I gave up and started instead to pull down the zip on the top half of my wet suit, when I heaved once more and signalled frantically for the bucket. As I threw up, I noticed that my bikini top had unhelpfully slipped off to one side, exposing my naked chest to Hugh, the crew and the poor dolphins. Hugh held my hair back while I freed myself not only of my breakfast but any last remnants of dignity that I may have one had. Where were my girlfriends when I needed them?

Boob flashing aside, and in an attempt to see the positive, the trip back to land was great. I was wrapped in a fleecy blanket and given some sweet tea and chocolate as I watched the land finally coming to view in the distance. I lived my dolphin encounter vicariously through my group and listened to their excited chatter as I got waited on hand and flipper and had some photos taken for me. I really did feel like Queen Nicola - Ernst would have been proud of me, although maybe not so much the exposure part.

Back safely on land, I slept on the coach home and made it back to Christchurch early evening. I checked my emails, replied to Lauren who I met in Peru and the girls back home who hopefully will see the funny side of today's goings on. I'm now in my room, with my backpack stuffed with clothes, and I'm shattered and trying to forget that I still feel like I'm on a boat. Bleurgh. I am meeting Ernst at 6.50 am for another royal breakfast and then have a taxi booked to take me to Columbo Street to meet my fellow travellers for our trip to the majestic Mount Cook. Excited, and relieved that I'll be trekking around a mountain and not swimming with a mammal.

Goodnight xx

So, it was a day to remember but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. In May this year I am travelling to New Zealand for five weeks with Alex. Any encounters with dolphins, unless accidental, are not part of our itinerary.

Nor is wearing a wet suit.