Today got off to a very inauspicious start when I found out that a low mist had enveloped Kaikoura overnight, which caused all early-morning whale watches to be cancelled. This meant that, while I was eating a hearty bacon & egg breakfast at Flukes Cafe, I was trying to mentally work out if a later whale watch would fit into my schedule for the day. However, this concern turned out to be for naught when I realised I was working off the wrong version of the schedule — turns out my whale watch wasn’t until 1.15pm anyway!
By the time 1.15 rolled around, the clouds were still low over the mountains but it was all blue sky and sunshine at the beachside area where Whale Watch Kaikoura is based. After a short safety briefing, we all loaded up into a bus for a drive to the other side of the Kaikoura peninsula, where we met our home for the next few hours — the catamaran Paikea. Those who have seen the film Whale Rider may recognise this name because Paikea is the whale rider; according to Maori myth, after the canoe he was riding in sunk, he grabbed ahold of a whale who took him all the way south to New Zealand.
Paikea must have been a lot better at handling seasickness than the people n board his namesake, because a few faces started to turn a bit green as soonas we headed out into the 1.5m swell. We were told that we were lucky because the whales seen earlier in the day were only six miles from shore, but that six miles was quite unsettling to some (including me). However, once they announced that a sperm whale was visible on the port side, I did my best to forget it and herded outside.
Whale Watch Kaikoura’s boats are quite well designed, in that there never seemed to be anyone clambering for space in front of other people. Everyone stood single file along the side of the vessel (and on top) and admired the giant of the sea as he caught his breath. As we learned from the talk on the way out, sperm whales only stay on the surface for between 5-10 minutes before they do a deep dive and disappear for up to an hour, and we caught this one at the end of his trip to the surface. This means we only had a minute or two before he took one final breath and dove, giving us a great view of his tail as he gracefully disappeared beneath the water (and I really liked that about the sperm whale — unlike the humpback, if you see a sperm whale here, you’re almost guaranteed to see his tail).
We were lucky enough to spot two other whales, both of which had only just come to the surface when we reached them. One was Tiaki, a very large whale and a very well-known one around Kaikoura. Both happily hung out at the surface, giving us nice blow photos (or at least, you think they’re nice until you realise you’re taking photos of whale snot) before eventually disappearing back into Kaikoura Canyon again. I’ve seen whales a few times now in Queensland, but I still just stand in awe at how truly large some creatures are (and how graceful they are in spite of it!).
Kaikoura Canyon is what makes this area home to such a rich population of sea life. Not far from the shore of the peninsula, the ocean drops to over 1300m deep, creating a trench full of nutrients that the smallest sea life lives on. Because they flourish, so do the larger animals that hunt them, thus the presence of animals like the sperm whale and the orca.
After seeing the three whales, our captain took us closer to shore in an attempt to find other sea and bird life to entertain us with. It didn’t take long — we very quickly came across a flock of sea birds floating in the swell. These included a few shy albatrosses and a Westland petrel. Then we hit the jackpot when we came upon a small pod of dusky dolphins who frolicked in front of our bow as we moved slowly along. When we moved a bit to the north, we found ourselves smack in the middle of a pod of 200 dolphins. All around us they were splashing, spinning in circles around one another under the water, and doing flips for our entertainment. They were happy and showing it, and in turn, we were happy.
Eventually, we turned back to shore, and while I was sad to leave the dolphins and whales behind, my stomach was certainly very happy to be back on dry land. But even if it meant another bout of near-seasickness, would I go out with Whale Watch Kaikoura again? In a heartbeat.
Whale Watch Kaikoura is located at The Whaleway Station, Whaleway Road, near the Kaikoura train station. Whale watch tours are available from $145 ($60 for children). Up to 7 tours depart daily.