"Kia ora" from Kaikoura! That means "greetings" in the language of the Maori, the native people of New Zealand, who first inhabited the Kaikoura Peninsula on the eastern coast of South Island.

Dr. Bernd Würsig, marine biologist and expert on cetaceans, has been working with Earthwatch teams at Kaikoura for over 15 years. He came to Kaikoura in 1984 to research the social lives of dusky dolphins, which he had first observed off the coasts of Argentina. Dusky dolphins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere in the temperate waters off New Zealand, South Africa, and South America.

Würsig considers "duskies" to be one of the most amazing dolphin species in the world. Particularly acrobatic, they leap high above the water, spin, and somersault, at times slapping the water noisily with their tail fins. In Kaikoura, these highly social marine mammals can be found in large groups of several hundred to over 1,000 individuals, spending much of the day close to shore, engaged in resting and socializing activities.

"Dolphins," says Würsig, "may appear to be playing, but they are not nearly as 'carefree' as many people think. These animals need to be ever-alert in a dangerous world in order to survive." At Kaikoura, the dolphins must be on constant lookout for predators such as sharks and killer whales (orcas) that frequent the deeper waters offshore.

Now with the dramatic increase of tourism, boats and people may pose a new threat. Too often whale-watch boats and swimmers approach the dolphins at times they are resting. A few dolphins may respond by riding the bow waves of the boat or leaping into the air. But most of the group, especially subgroups of mothers and calves, move away.

To date the responses of dolphin groups to human activities appear to be mild, but how much is too much as far as numbers of boats, types of boat approaches, and numbers of swimmers to be allowed in the water with the dolphins?

Recently tour boat operators have imposed a two-hour midday break to give dolphins a rest. Würsig and Earthwatch teams are comparing dolphin movements and behaviors before, during, and after the break to determine the impacts of tourism activities.

Photo courtesy of April Harlin/Earthwatch Institute