Known for its abundant marine life, Kaikoura is an essential New Zealand destination for animal lovers and its tourism is on the rise. In this South Island peninsula, you can get close to whales and dolphins in their natural habitat, in an ethical and respectful way. Here’s the lowdown on the best things to do in Kaikoura.
Things to do in Kaikoura: whale watching
The Giant Sperm Whale is the largest toothed whale in the world, at a length of 15-20 metres, and weighing an almighty 40-60 tonnes. Today, we were going whale watching in Kaikoura, to spot one in its natural habitat, as part of my adventures in New Zealand’s South Island.
Located in an old railway building, Whale Watch Kaikoura runs a number of boat trips every day to see the Giant Sperm Whale. Other marine creatures in the area include dolphins and an array of seabirds.
Once it was established that conditions were conducive to a safe trip out to sea, we were briefed and boarded a bus to the harbour. On the boat itself, we were welcomed by the crew, notably Rachel, who gave us a friendly, comprehensive and informative overview of the local area and its marine life. She provided plenty of facts and figures, as well as insight from the company’s 27 years of operating these trips to go whale watching in Kaikoura.
Some fun facts for you: the Sperm whale has the largest brain of any living animal – seven times larger than the human brain. It can live for over 70 years. The creature gets its unusual name from the ‘melon’ of tissue mass inside its forehead, which it uses for communication and possibly also buoyancy and echolocation. The tissue contains around 2.5 tonnes of oil which, when first discovered by humans, was originally thought to be semen – hence the name. Sadly, this spermaceti oil became highly sought-after for oil lamps, candles, cosmetics and machinery lubrication. Otherwise, these beautiful creatures have few natural predators. The species is now protected by a whaling law to prevent hunting, and it is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Giant Sperm Whale we spotted on our whale watching in Kaikoura was ‘Tiaki’, the largest whale in the area. He has been swimming in the local waters for 25 years.
Every 45 minutes to an hour, he surfaces to inhale oxygen, before making his descent back to the depths. The reason why Tiaki and other whales can live so close to the shore here is because Kaikoura has a continental shelf – a sheer cliff dropping over a kilometre – into a 5km wide canyon. It is one of only a few places in the world where this occurs so close to the coastline, meaning people can easily visit the home of these majestic creatures with just a short boat ride.
Today we were lucky enough to see Tiaki breach the water twice, as he was reaching the surface just as we arrived, so we could stick around to see him ascend again.
After a few spurts of water and gathering enough oxygen, he arched his back, so we knew he was about to dive down and give us the money shot – his enormous tail curling and reaching up into the air as he swam back down to the bottom of the ocean. Simply magical.
Things to do in Kaikoura: dolphin swim encounter
I would love to say it was a bright sunny day for my dolphin encounter, but sadly we weren’t that lucky. It was distinctly overcast, though an improvement on the previous day’s heavy rain. Dolphins aren’t bothered by a bit of rain, of course. It’s the sea conditions that matter, when determining whether or not the boats will sail that day. It turned out we were in luck after all. Despite some moderate sea-sickness warnings, we were all good to set sail for our Kaikoura dolphin tour.
Donning full-body insulating and buoyant wetsuits, jackets and caps, we boarded the boat and headed to where the dusky dolphins are known to hang out. Did I mention this was 5.30am? Yes, it was a challenge to get out of bed at that time. But this time of day is when the dolphins are most active and mostly likely to perform acrobatic flips and jumps. As we sailed through the waters, we spotted one of Kaikoura’s other famous residents, the albatross, soaring over the sea. Looking for a fishy breakfast, its wingspan was an impressive three metres. Then, with delight, we started to spot a few fins breaking the surface of the water.
As we sat on the back of the boat with our snorkel gear, ready to drop off the edge into the sea, it seemed unreal that we were about to go swimming in the natural habitat of these beautiful and intelligent wild creatures. This is no commercially-driven ‘swim with dolphins’ experience where they are kept trapped for a line-up of eager tourists to patronisingly pet them on the head and take photographs. No, here we are on their turf – or surf, in this case. With the sea stretching as far as the eye could see , we had to respect their wishes if we wanted to get close. Maybe they would be in a playful mood, maybe not.
Back at Dolphin Encounter HQ, we had been briefed with a video, advising us on how best to attract the attention of our aquatic cousins. For the brave, it meant diving downwards while holding your breath – freediving, essentially. But I knew this wasn’t going to be for me. For the rest of us, it was simply a case of keeping our faces down in the water, moving our bodies in a fish-like manner and making squeaking or singing noises. So I dove in and channelled my inner Flipper as best I could.
Occasionally when I looked up, I could see that there were dozens of dolphins playing in the water around our group of about twenty. Quite astonishing. I looked down into the deep sea, gently waving the long flippers on my feet, arms at my side, and doing my best dolphin noises. My heart skipped a beat when two of these mighty creatures passed by right under my nose, merely a few inches away. My Flipper impression seemed to be doing the trick.
We did three swims in total, as the boat would approach a pod of dolphins and drop us in. We were advised not to touch them, but sometimes one of these powerful mammals would nudge into my leg and I would squeal, partly from delight, partly from fear. Not that they could probably tell the difference from my musical dolphin-like squeaks and attempts to sing to them. At one point, I tried a slightly strangled version of ‘Bear Necessities’. They didn’t seem impressed.
The whole experience was incredible and, honestly, felt like a dream. Though perhaps it was the sleep deprivation. Here we were, swimming in the sea with multitudes of wild dolphins coming up close to your face. Passing alongside your body, they are curious to check out who are these friendly intruders making the daft noises. I wished I had an underwater camera to capture the experience. Though, on the other hand, having one might remove you from the moment.
This experience was truly something to take in as much as possible, with your eyes wide, and all the while mentally pinching yourself as it seemed so unreal. What a privilege.
Now, check out more of my New Zealand South Island adventures in this post.