Case study - Dolphin Encounter Kaikōura

In the 1980s, Kaikōura was an economically depressed town with high unemployment levels. At this time a whale watch business called Nature Watch Charters was set up which was soon followed by a second enterprise known as Kaikōura Tours (subsequently renamed Whale Watch Kaikōura). 2975  The interest in whale watching at Kaikōura rapidly increased. At the same time, Dolphin Mary Charters (subsequently named Dolphin Encounter) persuaded DOC that viewing and swimming with dusky dolphins was a viable business, and it issued them a permit. This enabled many people to interact with dolphins for the first time. Previously, dolphins had only been widely accessible in captivity. With increasing tourist interest in the wild dolphins, DOC placed a moratorium on the issue of further permits, until research into the impacts of tourism on the dolphins could be undertaken.

Research undertaken during the late 1990s, found that the dolphins were accompanied by boats for much of the day (over 70 per cent of daylight hours), and that the boats changed dolphin behaviour. However, it was not possible to determine whether the changes in behaviour observed, had a significant impact on the welfare of the dolphin population overall. The researchers suggested that a cautionary approach should be applied to any increase in dolphin tourism activity. 2976

In 1999, as result of the research, DOC put in place a moratorium on the issue of any more dolphin swimming permits for a ten year period. In addition, Dolphin Encounter and the other permit holders agreed to give the dolphins a two-hour “time off” period during the middle of the day over the summer months. In anticipation of the moratorium expiring in 2009, DOC commissioned a three-year investigation into the effects of tourism activity on the dolphins.

Following this further research, the moratorium on the issue of additional permits was extended for another five years. The two-hour rest period for the dolphins during the summer months was made mandatory. A limit was placed on the number of swims which could be attempted on each trip and a prohibition was placed on dropping swimmers in front of approaching dolphin pods. 2977

The dolphins and whale encounters have transformed Kaikōura from an economically depressed town in the 1980s to a vibrant community bristling with new tourist accommodation, restaurants and souvenir shops. Marine mammals now underpin the town’s economy.


  1. Peart R, 2013

  2. Peart R, 2013

  3. Peart R, 2013

Last updated at 2:11PM on February 25, 2015