KAIKOURA, April 26 — As a child, visits to the zoo were always a fun experience. There were long-necked giraffes to look up at or napping tigers that threatened to snarl if one awoke them from their slumber. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring creature though is the grey and wrinkled elephant, the largest animal on land.
But what about the seas though? In the oceans, the leviathan-like whales reign supreme. There isn’t exactly a zoo where one could conveniently visit to watch whales. Therefore when my partner and I found ourselves travelling in New Zealand recently, we made a beeline for Kaikoura, a small fishing town on the east coast of the South Island.
Here, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the magnificent sperm whale, which resides off the coast of Kaikoura all year round. Reaching up to 18 metres in length, the sperm whale is the largest toothed whale in the world.
Kaikoura itself offers some extraordinary views, as it’s situated between the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. The currents that arrive at the Kaikoura Peninsula bring with them abundant marine life such as paua (abalone) and koura (crayfish). In fact, the name Kaikoura means “a meal of crayfish” in Maori, hence the town’s history as a centre of the crayfish industry.
Today however, visitors flock here for the whale watching, considered one of the best organised in the world. While there are helicopter and airplane whale-watching tours, these are too high above to truly experience the splendour of these gentle giants. Hence we signed up for Whale Watch, the only marine option to view the sperm whales.
First we checked in at the Whale Watch headquarters with other passengers. A safety briefing ensued, where we were updated on the current sea conditions. For those prone to sea sickness, taking some medicine for it is encouraged. The boats used are high speed as sperm whales typically come to the surface for 8-10 minutes to breathe or re-oxygenate after being underwater for up to an hour.
It was a clear summer morning when we set out to the sea. Opt for the earliest tour of the day if you can; the waves are calmer and the light less harsh if you want to take photographs. If you’re lucky, besides sighting a sperm whale, you may also come across dolphins, albatrosses, and even fur seals.
According to our guide, there are eight semi-resident sperm whales that feed in the area. Each are given names, usually Maori descriptions of their markings or scarring that help identify them. Using a hydrophone, which doesn’t disrupt the whales’ own echolocation system unlike sonar, our guide listened patiently for a whale. We were very lucky and spotted a sperm whale within 10 minutes on the water.
Our guide informed us that this was a male sperm whale named Tiaki, after the shape of its pointy dorsal fin. Another way to recognise Tiaki is from the shape of his fluke, the two lobes of its tail, which is like a fingerprint as no two are alike. In fact most of the whales in this area are male; the females and young feed in warmer waters.
There’s no way to quite express the wonder of seeing a whale resting and exhaling mere metres away from you. Every exhalation causes a spray of water to shoot high into the air from Tiaki’s blowhole. It’s Nature at its finest and most moving.
Of course, the climax is when Tiaki finishes re-oxygenating and begins its dive back down (up to 2,000 metres!) to resume feeding. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for — to photograph, to capture on video, or simply witness with our own naked eyes — because as it dives, the whale’s fluke breaches high out of the water.
That is, as they say, the money shot.
Now it’s rare to spot more than one whale during a single trip, though that’s not unheard of. So you may be forgiven for thinking the best is over once you’ve sighted a whale. However, there is such a diversity of animal life here, what you may encounter next may well surprise you.
We were lucky enough to spot an albatross next, specifically an endangered Gibson’s Albatross (also known as the Auckland Islands wandering albatross). The bird was feeding on the sea surface before taking off in what initially appeared to be an ungainly manner. Once the albatross stretched to its full wingspan of 2.5-3.5 metres though, it started soaring gracefully. What a sight — the longest-winged bird in the world!
Next came the most exciting part of the entire boat ride: when we encountered a huge pod of dolphins! Hundreds of them! These were dusky dolphins, a species that is smaller than the more well-known bottlenose dolphins.
Light, acrobatic and playful, the dolphins swam around us, flipping and jumping out of the water. If we didn’t know better, we’d think they were posing for our photographs!
After leaving the pod of dolphins, we got closer to the bay. Here, we could observe many kekeno or New Zealand fur seals basking on the coastal rocks and enjoying the summer sun. With their moist, black, and almost depthless eyes, these fur seals appeared to be both old-man wise and toy-ishly adorable. While they were widely hunted for their pelts until the late 19th-century, fur seals are now a protected marine species in New Zealand.
Wildlife off the coast of Kaikoura is diverse. Besides the sperm whales, there are also little blue penguins, Hector’s dolphins, blue sharks, sunfish, and the ever-present (and often annoying) sea gulls. (The large colony of gulls on one rock has locals calling it “Guano Island” due to the birds’ copious droppings.) If you’re lucky and have a sharp eye, you might also spot Northern giant petrels, royal albatrosses, Hutton shearwaters, mollymawks, and more.
When it came time for us to return to land, it was with some regret. We could easily spend many more hours simply riding the waves and observing the plentiful animal life. Yet it was also with some degree of gratitude that we were able to experience all that we did. Yes, we really did have a whale of a time!
Whale Watch Kaikoura
Cost: NZD145 per adult and NZD60 per child for the half-day Whale Watch trip
Location: The tours leave from Kaikoura (South Island, New Zealand), about 2½ hours north of Christchurch or south of Picton