Although there are several places around New Zealand to go whale watching – Kaikoura is indisputably the centre for such activities. The coastal shelf around here, which plunges dramatically into very deep water, forming a trench, allows whales to come closer into land than they might otherwise do, so creating the opportunity for a thriving tourist industry.
Once upon a time (and actually not so long ago) the connection between industry and whales was through the practice of whaling. Now, in order to maintain today’s whale related money making schemes, the conservation instead of the destruction of these magnificent creatures is paramount; a beautiful about face which provides a win/win for everyone.
I have to confess that going whale watching was not top of my priority list or something I was overly excited about. I’m a dolphin girl and having now swam with these creatures in the wild to fulfil the dream of a lifetime, I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by what I considered would be a somewhat tamer experience. We all make mistakes.
There are several operators who ply the waters off the Kaikoura coast. As always I had done a little research to ensure I gave my money to what I considered to be the most ethical company. We also wanted a company peopled by enthusiasts and not jaded workers inured to the boatloads of tourists which visited day after day. We opted for ‘Whale Watch Kaikoura’ – which turned out to be a great choice.
Although the sperm whales, which are present off this coast year round, are undoubtedly the stars of the show, I was surprised and pleased to learn that our trip wasn’t going to be just about the whales. There are 7 other species of whale which regularly visit these waters along with New Zealand fur seals and dolphins, including the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin, the Hector’s dolphin found only in New Zealand waters and the largest dolphin – orca, known more commonly as killer whales. In fact, so rich are these waters with marine mammals that Whale Watch Kaikoura are confident you will see them and offer an 80% refund if no whale is seen on your trip. Additionally, the Kaikoura coast has the largest concentration of pelagic birds found anywhere on New Zealand’s mainland. Things were squaring up for a good day.
For those who are so inclined (and I was) the Whale Watch Kaikoura team are dedicated to educating their guests in palatable and interesting formats. On-boat screens and boat crew talk you through what sperm whales are, where they live, how they feed, why this coast has them in such great numbers and 101 other interesting facts.
The first encounter we had was with a pod of dusky dolphins – the ocean’s acrobats. They tend to occur in large numbers so that it seemed everywhere we looked there was at least one and sometimes several dolphins leaping out of the water executing flips, spins and tail slaps and surfing the swell. It felt like a staged, personal performance – an incredible sight.
Not too long after this we had our first sperm whale sighting. It was almost impossible to get any real concept of this creature’s intense bulk because at any given time only two thirds of it was visible. We watched in awe for a while as it spurted fountains of water several feet into the air through its blow hole and then the crew member commentating on the whole thing announced ‘he’s preparing to dive – get ready’. At this point tens of cameras were raised to faces presumably in order to capture that iconic shot which so often appears on tourist literature – the ocean and an enormous tail fluke. The back of this enormous giant heaved out of the water and, as he nose-dived deeply, up came that gigantic tail, the size of which nothing can prepare you for.
There was a highly audible, collective gasp and then, much to my own surprise, I burst into tears. To this day I can’t quite explain why but I think it was something to do with the magnificence and graceful majesty of this sight. I felt honoured and fortunate to be witnessing such a thing and the depth of my feeling was unexpected.
We were to see another sperm whale a little while later, another pod of dusky dolphins with several tiny babies making up the group, New Zealand fur seals, the teeny-tiny Hector’s dolphins with their distinct rounded dorsal fins and several sea-birds including the enormous Wandering albatross. Wow!
I’m not a fan of organised tours and trips – they so often feel like mass tourism at its worst – impersonal and generic. However, Whale Watch Kaikoura has made me think again; professional, smooth, efficient, informative and best of all a whole collection of sightings to put with my treasured memories hoard.
I don’t have a single photograph of that day. I purposely chose to watch everything with my own unobstructed vision and not through a camera. I don’t regret it – I have my memento, it just happens to be stored inside me.
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