Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dolphin Tours

            I’m in Kaikoura at the moment, volunteering as a cleaner at a backpacker hostel in exchange for free accommodation.   I came down here initially to interview with a tour boat company here that specializes in running snorkel-with-wild-dolphins tours.  I didn’t get the job, unfortunately, but I did get to go out on one of the dolphin tour boats.   

            The dolphins are pretty awesome –  one of my main worries about the job was that I would feel that the tour itself was too exploitative of the animals for me to feel comfortable with working on these boats.   But, I was pretty happy with what I saw, and with the regulations that are in place to (hopefully) keep the dolphins from being overly harassed.   Before the tour, all the clients sit through a video where the expectation is drummed into them that the dolphins are wild animals, and therefore do what they want, not necessarily what you want.   The boat operates by a permit, and there are only so  many tours and snorkel sessions allowed in a given day – and there are mandatory rest blocks of two hours where no swimmers are allowed in the water at all.   The captains avoid groups of dolphins with young calves (though the young calves do not always avoid us – several came over to the boat anyway) and breeding groups.

            I was actually impressed with how comfortable the dolphins were with hanging right around the boat and the swimmers.   The swimmers were told a few hints for attracting the dolphin’s attention – swimming in circles, and making noises through their snorkels – and right off the bat there seemed to be a lot of dolphins eyeball to eyeball with the clients in wetsuits.   Dusky dolphins are quite small – maybe four feet long, and are known as one of the most acrobatic marine mammals.   I know I probably saw as many breaches from those dolphins in three hours than I’ve seen breaches in Alaska in four years…   It helped that there were over one hundred dolphins hanging out in a loose group.   The dolphins feed at night – when deepwater fish and plankton tend to come closer to the surface – and so during the day, some of the dolphins seem to tolerate moonlighting as tourist attractions.   Honestly, the snorkeling part looked pretty darn cool.   

            The tours end by driving around slowly through the dolphins, to let the people who were snorkeling watch the dolphins and take photographs.    These dolphins like riding bow waves– surfing along the front of the boat, just under the pontoon,  in a perfect position to catch the pressure wave created by the boat as it passes.   They’re also in perfect position to be photographed by tourists hanging their cameras over the boat rail.   The Dall’s porpoise in Alaska would often bow-ride, but never for very long.   You could get their attention for maybe two minutes, tops – but some of the dusky dolphins seemed content to hang out under our pontoon for upwards of five minutes at a time.

            The boat-based part of the job was mostly looking after the swimmers – keeping an eye on them in the water, helping people who get, cold, or sea-sick, and dealing with gear – showing people how to use it, and collecting it at the end of the swim.   Working continually in moderate sea swell would have been tough – that was probably the worst part of working on the Fjords Tours boats.  But, the tours were also  shorter – three hours on the water, compared with six hours when I was working at KFT. Unlike KFT, the first dolphin tours of the day depart at 5:30 AM.

            In the US it is totally illegal to allow tourists to swim with dolphins in their natural environment – but it is perfectly legal to allow tourists to swim with dolphins who are kept in captivity.   I don’t know what the regulations are regarding captive dolphins in New Zealand – I don’t even know that there are captive dolphins in New Zealand – there are probably some in a zoo or aquarium somewhere.   But I sort of think that NZ might have the right idea about what’s actually ethically defensible dolphin tourism.   

            After spending the day with the dolphin boat company, I took the bus back up to Picton, as I didn’t fancy waiting around Kaikoura sitting on my hands while I waited to hear back.   Picton seemed a nice choice, because there’s a lot of walking trails near town, the areas is beautiful, and there’s a really nice hostel there with a beautiful garden that serves free apple crumble every night.   I took two more all-day hikes, and saw a few new birds on the trails as well.   As it turned out, I didn’t get the job with the dolphin boat, but I am back in Kaikoura anyway, as a hostel here had posted an ad asking for volunteers willing to do cleaning work in exchange for free accommodation.   I called then up, and was on a bus an hour later.

            Dusky Lodge is big – three floors, plus an on-site pool and hot tub.   I’m in a dorm room in the basement with about eight cleaning volunteers.   I can only assume that my fellow volunteers clean the other areas of the hostel better than they do our own living quarters – it looks like some sort of laundry hamper explosion took place down there.   At least the bathroom looks decently clean…   Work starts at nine AM, two to three hours a day, and I’ve agreed to stay a week or two.   Probably, that means I will be staying for as long as it takes to line up something else.   

            The lining-something-else-up is probably the most frustrating part of what’s going on in my life right now.   I came to New Zealand not so much to travel, or bungee-jump,  or drink my way around the country.   Mostly, I wanted to find a little niche for myself in a new country and live there for a while.   I had also thought that since I’ve worked in tourism in Alaska for four years, that getting some sort of tourism job in New Zealand would be a reasonable aspiration.   I’ve been in New Zealand for two weeks now, and so far not any closer to finding that hoped-for niche. 

            I emailed a woman who runs a small tourism company in a very remote corner of the South Island – we’ve been emailing back and forth for a couple of months – and I have an invitation to go down to her location and take a look at the operation.    All she can offer is work in exchange for accommodation – apparently her season is looking scarily slow due to the economic recession, or that’s the impression I’m getting from her.   Work-for-accommodation, theoretically, would be OK, if the job were interesting enough – though there is the nagging worry that I do have bills in the US (medical insurance, for example) that will have to be factored into the equation somewhere. However, she referred to the ferry that services her island as a direct competitor to her business, and warned me that if I took the ferry, I should say nothing about why I was coming out there to anyone who worked on the boat.   It’s hard to judge, not having seen the situation first-hand, but it sounds like there might be some serious bad blood between her business and the locals. Even though I have no idea what prompted her to say that, it’s certainly raised a few red flags.   I mean, there are certainly businesses in Seward that might be considered direct competitors to the Iceberg Lodge.   Usually, whenever I run into their employees, we go out for a beer and talk about how much it rains.

            Also in the category of weird job-hunt-related emails, a guy named Ian has emailed me some information about working at a gold mining dive site in Otago for the summer.   I don’t quite know how, exactly, people manage to seem sketchy over email, but this guy (who I’m sure has got to come across better in real life) is doing really well at being unintentionally sketchy.   After I wrote Ian about the ad, the first correspondence I received from him was a one-line email asking me to look at some pictures he’d taken of where he lived.  Ian’s correspondence reminds me of the sort of emails you get from a guy you met at a bar and didn’t fancy, but gave your email address to anyway – misspelled, badly punctuated, and a little too personal a little too quickly.   

            I did my first cleaning shift at the hostel this morning – cleaning all three kitchens, dealing with garbage, and then making up beds.   The hostel jobs are divvied up between whoever’s working that day, so I might only have to clean bathrooms two or three times in a week.   There’s about eight volunteers at the moment – not all of us are working at the same time, between days off and some people having evening cleaning shifts, but there seemed plenty of people to get everything done.   I’m also told that the Dusky Lodge is usually a lot quieter during the week – and tonight it’s already noticeably less crowded than it was last night.   Partly that was because about a dozen road bikers came through, having biked all the way from Christchurch that day.   The group was definitely of the work hard, play hard mentality.   The room that the volunteers share is directly under the main lounge and kitchen – thankfully, the bikers decided to call it a night about the same time that I decided to go to bed.   I didn’t wake up when the other hostel volunteers came back from the pub – they’re well-versed enough in dorm living to all use flashlights, instead of turning on the main overhead light, which I really appreciate.  

            I walked down to another backpacker hostel with Sarah, another volunteer who’s been at the hostel for two months.   Sarah plays ukulele, and we were trying to meet up with a guitarist and piano player that she knew from that hostel.   We didn’t find him, but we did meet a random guy playing guitar on his front lawn, so we jammed with him instead.   I spent some time in the hostel jacuzzi, which got cleaned today after all the bike riders were in there last night.   (At one point it looked like there were more bikers in the jacuzzi than water.   Possibly, there was more beer in the jacuzzi than water as well, but I digress…)   One of the other hostel volunteers is giving us yoga classes after we’re done with our morning cleaning work, which is great.

            I’m very glad I’ve gotten myself somewhere where I’m not paying for a bed every night, but honestly, I’m a little depressed, and very, very frustrated that my attempts to find a niche for myself here in New Zealand haven’t really gotten me anywhere.     I feel like between worrying about money and job prospects, and sharing crowded, smelly dorms with a continually changing succession of girls that I talk to for one night and then don’t see again because either I or them are heading off somewhere else – it’s starting to wear me down.   Which is a shame, because New Zealand is pretty spectacular, but it’s getting hard at times to remember that.   It also feels a little stifling that there’s a thriving tourism industry down here – dolphin boats, and glacier hikes and all that – but so far I’ve been excluded from the fun.

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