Two New Zealand eco-tourism activities have been recognised by Lonely Planet in a top 10 list of the world’s ‘Best Marine Encounters’.
In coastal Kaikoura, a small family-run business - on the eastern seaboard of New Zealand’s South Island - is celebrating after discovering that Seal Swim Kaikoura has been named as one of the world’s top 10 ‘Best Marine Encounters’ by the influential travel writers of Lonely Planet.
Meanwhile, further south on the same coastal stretch, Black Cat Cruises operating in Akaroa Harbour - an ancient volcanic crater on Banks Peninsula - are also celebrating the top 10 inclusion of their dolphin swimming tour.
The ‘Best Marine Encounters’ list is derived from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Adventures publication and Lonely Planet’s travel writers participate anonymously on tours so they can give unbiased reviews.
Brother and sister, Matt and Vanessa Chambers, and father Graeme Chambers were surprised to learn of the accolade when they were congratulated by a guest at a recent social gathering.
Seal Swim Kaikoura is among New Zealand’s original seal swimming and snorkelling activities, and has been running in various incarnations since it was founded by Graham Chambers in 1987.
The 2.5 hour seal swim tour takes place in the shallow bays of the stunning Kaikoura Peninsula - a picturesque coastal landscape bordered by the Inland Kaikoura Ranges. Here visitors can experience the wonder of swimming with native New Zealand fur seals in their natural habitat.
The environmentally conscious business - awarded Trip Advisors’ Certificate of Excellence for three years running - is licensed by the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) and works hard to ensure that while visitors get the best experience, this does not come at a cost to the natural behaviour patterns of the curious and playful seals.
It was this pure back-to-nature wildlife experience in Kaikoura’s clear waters that brought Seal Swim to the attention of Lonely Planet.
A writer from the prominent travel bible described the thrill of seeing "adolescent seals spin, dive, and lay back amidst this labyrinthine marine forest".
"But it’s the younger seals that seem most interested in the wet-suited interlopers floating amongst them. Curious pups sweep recklessly towards swimmers, make underwater eye contact and then dart playfully away into an inky darkness broken by occasional beams of light."
Co-owner Vanessa Chambers was just as delighted about receiving the accolade.
"We do get some amazing feedback from our swimmers that’s why we do it - but to have a travel writer from Lonely Planet who participates in wildlife and adventure activities all over the world rate our Seal Swim Kaikoura experience so highly is a real thrill," Vanessa says.
"Considering the many marine wildlife experiences available internationally, it’s amazing to be recognised by such a major travel authority. We are truly quite stoked about it; it’s not something we ever really expected. And it’s great exposure - both for us and for Kaikoura."
Seal Swim Kaikoura is a family-friendly experience that has tours catering for all ages and abilities and runs from October to May. It is based in central Kaikoura.
North of Christchurch, Kaikoura is an eco-tourism jewel set in a spectacular combo of coastal and alpine scenery with a rich and prolific local wildlife population.
This little town offers varied tourism activities such as seal swimming and whale watching tours, and visitors can view many different wildlife species - from NZ fur seals to rare Hector’s and Dusky dolphins, southern right and blue whales, and sea birds such as albatross.
Black Cat Cruises
A second New Zealand tourism activity - dolphin swimming with Black Cat Cruises - also made it into the top 10 ‘Best Marine Encounters’ list.
Black Cat Cruises operates in Akaroa Harbour - a marine reserve in an extinct volcano crater on Banks Peninsula, south of Christchurch, taking small groups of tourists out on the water to swim with diminutive Hector’s dolphins.
These beautiful and naturally curious marine creatures are one of the friendliest and rarest dolphin species in the world. About 900 dolphins live around the Banks Peninsula, and regularly come into Akaroa and Lyttelton harbours.
Black Cat Cruises - a pioneer of eco-tourism in New Zealand - has been operating scenic and wildlife tours on Banks Peninsula for 25 years which also cover other wildlife, local history and geography.
The company received international publicity in 2008 with the world-first introduction of dry swimming suits for winter tours. Swimmers don the dry suits over their normal clothes.
Black Cat Cruises is committed to best environmental practices. It has won numerous accolades including New Zealand’s Supreme Tourism Award. The company has also been given a Qualmark Enviro-Gold rating - New Zealand's official mark of quality ecological tourism.
The Banks Peninsula region provides the opportunity to see a wide variety of marine mammals and birds, including passing whales, New Zealand fur seals and endangered yellow-eyed penguins.
Sheltered Akaroa Harbour sits within a nine-million-year-old volcanic cone. Spectacular scenery includes still visible ancient lava flows, and Scenery Nook - a dramatic multi-hued volcanic amphitheatre.
New Zealand dolphins
NZ eco-tourism: Whale Watch Kaikoura