Unless you get out onto the water you’re missing the essence of the Bay of Islands. The majority of yachting, scuba diving, dolphin-watching, kayaking and fishing trips start in Paihia, but all the major cruises and bay excursions also pick up in Russell. From December to March everything should be booked a couple of days in advance. Hotels and motels can book for you; hostels can usually arrange a discount of around ten percent for backpackers.
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The two main operators are Fullers Great Sights and Explore NZ/Dolphin Discoveries, both offering sightseeing, sailing and dolphin trips. There are also numerous yachts that usually take fewer than a dozen passengers and go out for around six hours: competition is tight and standards vary. Most operators give you a chance to snorkel, kayak and fish.
The Bay of Islands is excellent for dolphin watching; there’s an eighty percent chance of seeing bottlenose and common dolphins in almost any season, as well as orca from May to October and minke and Bryde’s whales from August to January.
Your chances of swimming with dolphins are about 35–40 percent. Swimming is forbidden when there are juveniles in the pod, and only 18 people are allowed in the water with dolphins at any time. There’s usually a money-back offer if you miss out (check when you book); your best chance is on a cruise with companies licensed to search for and swim with dolphins.
Trips from the Bay of Islands
As the main tourist centre in Northland, the Bay of Islands acts as a staging post for forays further north, in particular for day-long bus tours to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach – arduous affairs lasting eleven hours, most of them spent stuck inside the vehicle. You’re better off making your way up to Mangonui, Kaitaia or Ahipara and taking a trip from there, or saving your dollars and taking Salt Air’s fixed-wing Cape Reinga Flight, which takes in the beach, Bay of Islands and includes a field landing and short run to the cape itself.
Fullers Great Sights also runs Discover Hokianga, another epic tour visiting the Hokianga Harbour, taking a Footprints Waipoua tour to the giant kauri trees, and taking a look at the Wairere Boulders. Again you are better off getting closer and spending more time at the actual attractions.