Dolphin watching on Canterbury’s Akaroa Harbour has just become a lot more accessible with the launch of a new, purpose-designed catamaran. By Matt Vance.


When Captain James Cook, sailor and impeccable cartographer, sighted Banks Peninsula on his first voyage to New Zealand he uncharacteristically got it wrong and referred to the volcanic form as Banks Island. It was one of those mistakes that seem to stick.
Lesser known was his accurate description of the ‘Cloudy Water Dolphin’ as being “…a most playful and comical fish.” The Hector’s dolphin, as it became known, has spawned a dolphin watching industry around Banks Peninsula that is reputed to contribute over $19.5 million to the Canterbury economy per year.


With a family history dating back to 1838, Hugh and Pip Waghorn have been running their Akaroa Dolphin business for 16 years. This long history gives them a unique insight into the history and wildlife of the Banks Peninsula region.
Akaroa Harbour is home to a unique collection of birdlife, New Zealand fur seals and white-flippered penguins. It is the Hector’s dolphin that is at centre stage for the many visitors to this beautiful harbour and for that reason a vessel that provides a stable and comfortable platform with minimal impact on the environment is the key to the experience.
Getting close to the Hector’s dolphin for the mostly non-boatie clientele is about making the experience as comfortable and pleasurable as possible. With this in mind Banks Peninsula’s leading wildlife watching business Akaroa Dolphins has recently launched its new purpose-built, Alan Wright-designed 15m power cat. She is an impressive collusion of design and styling that is set to make its mark on the competitive nature watching industry.

The two-year build process started with the discovery of the old Alan Wright-designed moulds in Auckland. For the previous 15 years, the Waghorn’s had run another Wright design Into the Blue – a luxury charter boat that they adapted to marine mammal watching and nature cruises. They liked the comfort and stability of the wide catamaran platform but had ideas about how they could better adapt the form to improve the experience for their clients.
The hull and topsides were laid up in the moulds in Auckland before the components were shipped down to Sounds Marine in Waikawa where the assembly and finishing were completed.



With nature watching in mind, the deck layout revolves around giving clients the ability to get around the boat and access great views of the wildlife. Without a doubt, the prime spot is the large foredeck area, which has a distinctive C-shaped centre seat in stainless steel and ample room for watching the bow-riding antics of the Hector’s dolphin. With the attraction of this area, the foredeck is kept clear by routing the anchor chain and windlass below the deck and covering them with flush fitting hatches.

The large cockpit aft is equally clean in its layout. With ample seating protected from the wind by the cabin and flybridge, the cockpit makes for another great socialising and observing area. There is a wide swim platform over the stern with two access gates either side for loading passengers.
In inclement weather, there is the main saloon with settees down each side and a raised U- shaped lounge with a polished table across the forward end. There is plenty of light and great views from this location, as well as access to the unisex toilet on the port aft end.

Down the companionway steps on either side of the saloon are what would normally be crew cabins. But the day charter nature of the Akaroa Dolphin’s operation means the hull spaces have become utility areas. The port side offers a small workshop while the starboard hull contains a galley for food and beverage service. Alongside these is tankage for 400 litres of freshwater, 400 litres of black water and over 700 litres of fuel.

Electrical power is provided by a Mase 9kW generator mounted in a hush box to prevent sound leakage into the water, which has the potential to disturb the dolphin’s sensitive echolocation abilities. At the aft end of each hull, through fire doors, are twin Cummins QSB6 350hp marine diesels, coupled to Yanmar KMH 60A gearboxes and spinning Diverse Engineering four-bladed props. The exhaust exits are above the water to further avoid acoustic pollution.
Up on the flybridge is the helm station and further passenger seating to take advantage of the panoramic views. The helm takes centre stage and is cleanly laid out with wheel, throttles and engine information all at hand.
Navigation is taken care of by a Simrad multifunction touch screen while communications are covered with easy access to VHF and commentary systems. Alongside the helm station is a cushion and dog bowl – the property of the Waghorns’ dolphin dogs which do shifts finding the dolphins using their superior canine hearing abilities.



On the Water
The first impression upon stepping aboard is that this is a lot of boat. The layout is designed purely around the customer experience and so it is able to absorb a multitude of people and give everyone a chance for an excellent view of the wildlife action. With only skipper George Waghorn and I aboard, this offered tennis court-sized spaces in which to play, both in the cockpit and on the foredeck.

Manoeuvring away from the wharf was easy with widely spaced-hulls and twin throttles. The twin Cummins let off a reassuring throb, suggesting plenty of quiet horsepower. Out on the beauty of Akaroa Harbour, the transition to cruising speed was smooth – she will go all day at 15 knots at around 1800rpm. At around 2400rpm a solid 20 knots could be achieved to get home in a hurry.

At rest in dolphin watching mode, the boat has a solid, substantial feel. Her widely spaced hulls knock a lot of the roll and pitch out of her motion, giving her a sure-footed feeling that will no doubt engender confidence in her dolphin-watching patrons.
While most boat reviews concentrate on what the boat is doing on the water, this is one of those situations where the boat design takes a back seat so that the passengers can focus on the main event of watching wildlife. If that is the measure of success then the Wright 15m has the design sensibility and sea keeping ability to do just that in style