Recently my local council had a promotion for residents that offered discounts on attractions in the area. This meant I jumped at the chance to tick another item off my Fifty Before 50 Bucket List. I went kayaking with dolphins in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary with Dolphin Sanctuary Kayak Tours
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About the Port Adelaide Dolphins
Port Adelaide is home to the only permanent metropolitan population of bottlenose dolphins in the world. There are around thirty wild dolphins that call the Port River home, with up to 400 others that pop in from time to time.
The Port River dolphins have a unique trait – they are the only ones in the world to tail walk in the wild. Many years ago, a dolphin that had previously been homed at Marineland (South Australia’s version of SeaWorld that closed down in 1988), was released back into the wild in the Port River. She clearly enjoyed tail walking, and kept on doing it even though she was no longer performing. Eventually some of the other dolphins also picked up the behaviour, and it has been passed down to the next generation of dolphins. I personally am yet to see it, but I am assured that it does still happen from time to time (our guide on the kayak tour said he has seen it!)
Port Adelaide is only half an hour from the city centre by train and easy to access. You may get a glimpse of the dolphins playing right near the wharves in Port Adelaide, or making their way along the beach front areas of Semaphore or Largs Bay. You may like to head out on the Port Adelaide Dolphin Cruise, or perhaps, like me, you would like to head further out into the sanctuary and do some kayaking, perhaps getting right up close with them.
Kayaking in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary
We hadn’t picked the best day for our kayak tour – it was cold and very windy. As we were driving out to the Garden Island starting point, it was raining a little – this was not what I had hoped for.
The instructions told us to arrive fifteen minutes before our tour, but to be safe we arrived thirty minutes before. I knew the area, so I wasn’t worried about not finding the location, but I did think I might take a walk along the small boardwalk and take some photos. The rain put end to that though!
Arriving early worked out well though. We quickly filled in the paperwork, put on the life jackets supplied, and rather than wait until the given time, we were able to jump straight into the kayaks – because we were lucky enough to be the only people doing the tour that session. Yay for a private tour!
Being just us and our guide meant that we could go at our own pace and do and see whatever we wanted to. While I can’t, of course, guarantee that you will also end up without others in your group, if you are particularly keen to do a private tour, I would contact them to ask – because I am sure they would try to work something out.
In terms of kayak experience, mine is limited at best. I know I did some at school during our aquatics camps, and I remember dragging a kayak out with the kids about ten years ago (which was a disaster!) but really, I’ve never kayaked as much as this before. Simon and I were given a double kayak, which both eased my nerves (he could do some of the work) and heightened them (he’s a bit wriggly and I was worried he’d tip us over!) too. As it turns out, not one single person has ever capsized during one of the tours, and I felt fairly confident that we wouldn’t be the first.
We were kayaking in strong winds and some waves though, so we did get a bit wet. Participants are encouraged to wear shoes that can get wet, but I would add to that and say wear clothes you are okay with getting wet too. My feet stayed dry, but my legs were soaked as the water splashed over the bow and off of the tips of the oars.
The first part of the tour took as toward the marina of the Garden Island Yacht Club. For the first stretch we were able to stay protected from the wind behind the island, but as we came around the bend it got more difficult to paddle – that is, I actually had to help rather than sitting back and enjoying the ride. We were soon in more protected water though, in one of the creeks that flow through the mangrove forest on Torrens Island. This mangrove forest has been here now for around 10000 years and makes up part of the Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary. Birds from as far away as Siberia come here as part of their migration.
Aside from being a great nature area, kayaking through the creeks is a lot of fun. The twists and turns mean some challenging paddling needs to take place, and it’s more about manoeuvring carefully rather than the brute strength that was needed to get over the waves. It’s also incredibly picturesque floating on the perfectly calm water under the mangrove canopy as the sun sparkles through (in those few minutes it chose to appear for us!). The water was surprisingly clear and it was easy to spot some of the millions of tiny fish that are hatched and live in the mangroves until they are big enough to brave the open waters.
We had the added challenge of a high-ish tide, so had to duck under a few branches along the creek that mostly would not be in the way of kayakers when the tide is lower. Our guide explained that occasionally the tides are too high to go very far at all in the creeks. Only last month there was a king tide that meant many of the lower branches that we were ducking under were completely under water.
After exploring a second creek, we had time to spare. Our guide asked what we wanted to do. The wind was blowing in exactly the wrong direction for easy exploring, but we decided we were up for the challenge and would make our way around the other side of the island to check out one of the shipwrecks in the Garden Island Ship Graveyard.
This ship we got to see was the Santiago, just one of 25 ships that were left in this area to rot and decay between 1909 and 1945. The Santiago was built in 1856 in Liverpool in the UK, and mostly did trips between there and South America. It is the oldest of all the ships in the graveyard, but the last one to be “buried” there.
By the time we paddled back around to the boat ramp, our three hours were up. We had a great time, the challenges of the weather were actually a bonus, giving us a real work out. Our guide gave as lots of information and was fun to chat to along the way. We saw lots of birds and other wildlife, learned about the mangroves and the history of the shipwrecks. Our only disappointment was not seeing any of the dolphins. That didn’t really detract from the day though, especially since we regularly see the dolphins around the area in our day to day lives.
More Things to Know
I did our kayaking with dolphins at Port Adelaide with Dolphin Sanctuary Kayak Tours. You can book the exact tour I did here. They also offer kayak hire to head out by yourself too. I will definitely be doing this soon since I had so much fun!
If you are concerned about how to get to Garden Island to start your tour, transfers from both the city centre and Glenelg can be arranged. There is no public transport to this part of Port Adelaide, so you would need to arrange to drive yourself or catch a Taxi/Uber otherwise.
You do not need to have any expertise in kayaking, as my experience shows. I did not feel uncomfortable, and we could go at our own pace. There are single, double and triple kayaks available if required.
As with all wild animal experiences, the dolphins may or may not show up. Our guide said that they see the dolphins more often than they don’t, but of course they cannot guarantee it. It’s still a great day out if they do not decide to visit.
TOP TIP – take a waterproof camera for the best photos. Even a phone in a waterproof case may not work (as my photos show!)
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Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred. She has lived in the state for almost her whole life, just one short stint away as a teenager with her family. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.