The Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, gleaming white in the afternoon sun, seem to float on a hazy bed of mist as the sun scatters brilliant diamonds of light across the water.
The view from absolute sea level is dazzling and the gentle rocking of our kayak adds to a sense of time suspended. I’m mesmerised. Then a call from Matt Foy, our guide and owner of Kaikoura Kayaks, breaks the spell: “Seal over here!”
I’m in a double sea kayak with Sam, a visitor from the UK. We turn and head over towards Matt and a seal that’s busily contorting itself in the water. “He’s having a wash,” says Matt, as the shiny black seal, flippers flapping, gets stuck into his ablutions. “They clean themselves in the water and use it to cool off after lying on the rocks.”
Colonies of New Zealand fur seals and other types of marine life make their home in the seas and on the coast around Kaikoura. Matt guarantees you’ll meet New Zealand fur seals on his half-day guided trips. “Everything else is a bonus.”
“During dolphin season in March and April we get hundreds of Dusky dolphins around the coast. A kayak’s the perfect way to see them; they keep up with you and play around, leap out of the water and swim underneath your kayak. We even spot the occasional whale. We’ve
been seeing little blue penguins in the water over summer and sometimes an albatross will fly between the kayaks – that’s an amazing sight, their wingspan can be longer than your paddle!”
We don’t see dolphins or penguins on this Sunday afternoon but we do get close to fur seal families drowsily eyeing us from their rocky locations or swimming up to our yellow and red kayaks for a nosy. Seabirds, too, are busy doing their thing: endangered Hutton’s shearwaters – endemic to Kaikoura – spotted shags, terns, cormorants, oyster catchers...
After meeting Matt at his base
just south of the town centre, we’d headed out along the north side of the Kaikoura Peninsula, stopping at a small reserve called Jimmy Armers Beach. Here Matt took us through some kayaking basics and important safety drills. He’d handed out warm, waterproof pants and paddle jackets, neoprene booties, life jackets and spray skirts. “We do operate yearround,” he tells me later, “and I don’t skimp on kit; if you’re warm and dry it makes the experience so much more enjoyable.”
We tug the kayaks into the water and, with Matt’s help, climb in, fasten the waterproof spray skirts around the cockpits and launch off into the surf. Soon we’re practicing our rapid sweep turns and paddling in synch and then we’re on the move, heading out towards the open sea. The ragged edge of the peninsula is on our right and the glittering mountains to the left. It’s a perfect day and I’m thinking this is the perfect way to spend it.
We paddle out to North Point. If kayaking conditions are better on the south side of the peninsula, Matt will put in at South Bay, but today there’s a bit of a sou’wester blowing, so we’re sticking to the leeward north coast.
Matt Foy has been running Kaikoura Kayaks since 1998 when, with a borrowed kayak, he set up shop over summer on a local beach. A keen surfer who’d grown up in Whangamata on the Coromandel Peninsula east of Auckland, he’d discovered river kayaking while attending the Outdoor Pursuits Centre on the North Island’s Central Plateau.
“There are no waves on the Central Plateau so the next best thing was river kayaking,” he says. “Kayaking in summer and snowboarding in winter.”
Matt gained a certificate in outdoor pursuits from Wairakei Polytechnic and returned to Whangamata for a summer of surfing. “When there were no waves I’d go out with a friend in his dad’s sea kayak. I started taking guided trips – and earning a living!
“I’d been looking at the South Island for a while and I’d seen there was good surfing at Kaikoura. And, of course, there was snowboarding in winter down south.”
There was no kayaking operation in Kaikoura back then, but the sea was teeming with marine life that was already attracting visitors. Matt saw it as “a golden opportunity” and set out his shingle.
Since that first summer, the business has grown to include eight double and four single sea kayaks, paddle boards, a kayak store
and kayak school, guided seal and fishing trips and independent rentals. In summer Matt takes on three extra staff to meet demand.
Out on the water, Matt’s relaxed professionalism and local knowledge is reassuring and encouraging to even newbie paddlers. This, together with the quality of equipment, his attention to safety and the overall visitor experience, has won Kaikoura Kayaks top spot fours years running in Rankers’ Sea Kayaking category, Tripadvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for 2014 and Top Choice from Lonely
On a day like this, I’m thinking, we’ve surely tasted the very best of Kaikoura. And maybe half a crayfish will complete the job.