Sperm whales, Blue Whales, Humpback whales … Kaikoura is a marine Mecca writes Alex Cuff
Formed in 1987 by the indigenous Ngati Kuri people, a subtribe of the South Island’s larger Ngai Tahu Tribe, Whale Watch Kaikoura was created to help alleviate the Maori community’s unemployment dificulties. Since then, Whale Watch Kaikoura has developed into an international award-winning ecotourism company and is a world leader when it comes to exploring and discovering sea life.
Whale Watch is dedicated to the protection of marine wildlife and the care of the environment. Whale Watch’s respect, guardianship and passion towards the whale species is evident in all aspects of the experience - from postcards found at the booking-in centre, to the crew’s description of the whales as spectacular and wondrous.
Glancing around the Whale Watch reception, tourists lined up on either side of me are bubbling with excitement as they book in at the front desk. Basic safety briefings and standards are carefully communicated on an overhead screen with an emphasis on child safety, which makes everyone feel more at ease and comfortable.
We make our way to the bus and are each individually welcomed with a friendly greeting by our bus driver Willie, who tells us that this is “a pearler of a day”, with near perfect conditions and only a small swell.
After the short bus drive over the peninsula to South Bay we are taken to the marina. Here Tohora, one of four custom made vessels is waiting for us with four crew members outside with eager smiles and greetings. We are seated and spoken to by our guide Aroha, who introduces us to our captain for the day, Paki, along with fellow crew Allan and Haley. Aroha starts the tour o by having us comically searching for our seatbelts when we inally realise that there aren’t
any on a boat. Her relaxed nature and local wisdom is comforting as she navigates her way through safety procedures.
Within minutes of gliding through the water we begin our journey out to sea and are instantly welcomed by marine wildlife, as birds soar overhead and seals bask in the seas stillness. A light breeze ills the air and the backdrop of snowy mountains contrasted against the glistening ocean on such a sunny day makes for the perfect postcard picture. Aroha directs our attention back to the main purpose of our visit; to see some of the world’s largest and most treasured creatures. She tells us that Sperm whales are what we are most likely to see today as they are found feeding in the Kaikoura canyon year round.
Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales and can reach an average of 16 metres in length with the largest brain of any animal on earth. Aroha also tells us about how Sperm whales use a liquid
substance called spermaceti to regulate their buoyancy which can solidify or become liquid depending on whether the mammal wants to dive down for food or come back up for air. She also tells us about other whales such as the Humpback, Blue Whale & other species of marine life sighted throughout the year.
Suddenly we hear news that there is already a Sperm whale on the surface. The boat positions itself next to the whale and the wowing of ecstatic voices ills the air around me as we all look on in amazement. The whale is submerged with its head in full view to us. I quickly snap photos and then put my camera down to enjoy this moment of having such a magnificent and astonishing creature right in front of us. As the boat idles, everyone falls silent as they watch the whale spend time taking in oxygen as he lays content in the calm water. Over the microphone Aroha tells us that this is Tiaki, a semi-residential whale to the Kaikoura canyon. The crew can distinguish individuals by their unique tails & dorsal.
We are able to watch the whale for another ten minutes before it begins to arch its back and dive back down towards the seabed with its signature tale lick upon its descent. Left in its place is its footprint, a displacement of water due to the descending tale brush which once was believed by early settlers to be oil left behind from the whale.
Whale Watch Kaikoura is New Zealand’s ultimate all-year-round marine experience.
The experience is exhilarating, and left with the rush of the breathtaking sight, we head o towards Barney’s Rock, which is a fur seal colony. We are told more about the other whales Aoraki, Tutu and Manu, which frequently visit the Kaikoura canyon along the way. As the boat draws to a close we see a small pod of hector dolphins pass by us. Cushioned around the snow-tipped Kaikoura ranges with the endless sea surrounding us, it is hard to imagine anywhere else you would rather be.
As the sun begins to disappear behind the mountains, we begin our leisurely retreat to dry land. Gliding through the water with sea spray at our sides, we recline in our seats and watch a detailed video of the Kaikoura canyon; a submarine canyon that connects into a deep sea channel system.
It is a bitter-sweet moment as we wave goodbye to the crew from the departing bus. The sense of being suspended in liquid disappears but the memory remains, along with the magnificent experience of Kaikoura’s immense sea creatures, which will stay with us for a lifetime. Kaikoura truly is a marine mecca.
Whale Watch Kaikoura is New Zealand’s ultimate all year round marine experience o ering visitors exciting close encounters with male Sperm whales. An impressive 95% success rate means that you are guaranteed an 80% refund if your tour does not see a whale.
Tours are scheduled year round. Bookings essential—please visit for more information and tour bookings www.whalewatch.co.nz