Aotearoa: Whalewatching at Kaikoura

After our trek through the wineries of Marlborough, The One And Only and I headed southward, back toward Christchurch. Christchurch - which offered the cheapest tickets to and from the North Island - was the beginning and end of our South Island tour, but we still had a stop or two before heading back north. In particular, we didn't want to miss Kaikoura, the whalewatching center of the South Island.

The drive toward Kaikoura - mountains and ocean side by side
Odd rock formations were the order of the day along the coast
The grey weather did make us worry about the possibility of whalewatching...

Kaikoura, on a peninsula that juts out into the ocean, is near a deep ocean valley where male sperm whales come to chill - and to wait until they're old enough to start having sex. (Or, really, trying to have sex.) Although male sperm whales are sexually mature at around 10 years of age, they don't have enough social status to be sexual partners until they're about 25. Even then, not all males are lucky enough to mate; there's an intense physical competition for female sexual partners, and each sexually active bull tends to have several female partners. As a result, a sizeable number of male sperm whales never gets to mate at all. This, I imagine, explains why they spend so much time around New Zealand - that water must be like a cold shower.

Because female sperm whales are smaller (usually about 1/3 the size of males), with less insulating blubber, they stay in more tropical waters, with temperatures above 15° C (59° F). The New Zealand area is too cold for the female whales, and so here, it's just the boys. The area is also abundant in other marine life; the Maori name Kaikoura is taken from the words kai - food, and koura - crayfish. The Kaikoura peninsula is also the place where, according to legend, the god Maui sat when he fished the North Island out of the ocean.

The view from the Kaikoura winery - ocean, mountains, forests.
Grape vines of the Kaikoura winery

Whales frequent the sea around Kaikoura because it's on the continental shelf, and the depth drops off precipitously fairly close to the shore - not too far from land, the ocean is already at a depth of 800 meters. There's also a lot of whalefood here, particularly krill, as the result of various ocean currents, which also accounts for its popularity among the male sperm whale population.

Before you start snickering about gender and the concept of female "sperm" whales in the first place, let me clarify that their name has nothing to do with actual sperm - just a substance that, well, kinda looks like sperm, but isn't. This substance is housed near their brains, and no one is quite sure what purpose it serves; some theories suggest that it has something to do with their ability to dive as deeply as they do, while others suggest it has to do with focusing and transmitting sound.

One of the first whale moments - the sperm whale's blowhole bursting water into the air as it breathes.

The whale's tail - the last thing you see before the whale goes back down into the deeps.
More blowing in front of the Kaikoura hills; this shot gives you some sense of how long the whale actually is, although you can still only see a small portion of it.

Whales are not guaranteed on a whalewatch, nor, for that matter, is it even guaranteed that the whale watch will happen at all. If the weather is cloudy or rainy, the whalespotting planes can't find the whales, and so the boats don't go out. It had been rainy and overcast the entire previous day; going to sleep that night, we were worried that we wouldn't be able to head out for a whale watch. However, by morning, the weather had not just cleared up, but turned beautiful - blue skies and sun, with only a hint of clouds. Apparently, the visibility helped us out; we saw not one, not two, but three whales - above average for a winter whale watch. The whales will come up about once every hour, for about fifteen minutes of breathing, floating on the surface and taking in air for the deep dive that's coming.

A whale floats in front of us. Even more so than with an iceberg, most of the whale is below the surface. Sperm whales can get up to 45 tons and 18 meters in length; from above the water, you only see a small fraction of it.
Another whale, breathing.
Mountains in the background as a whale disturbs the near surface of the water.
Another whale bids us adieu.

This breathing, of course, is what made sperm whales relatively easy targets for whalers, back in the day when New Zealand was known primarily for the lucrative whaling and sealing to be had in its waters. I'd been doing some research into the whaling and sealing industries of the nineteenth century, because they were a major employer of indigenous peoples during that time period.Some of the accounts I'd read were of the actual, brutal whale- and seal-hunting process. It was awful to think that this breathing - what connected these underwater giants to the rest of the mammalian world - had left them so vulnerable to harpooners that their population was decimated.

Sealing, too, was an extraordinarily brutal affair. Seals in the water are speedy and graceful creatures. Get them on land and they are slow and bulky - and that, of course, is where sealers got them, going ashore in crews with clubs and knives and killing as many of the seals as they could lay their hands on. These days, there is neither sealing nor whaling in New Zealand, but for that moment, the past was a little too present.

Cliffs with seals - they're the lumpy, brown, slug-like things that aren't as cragged as the rock...
Closeup of two seals. Awful cute, aren't they? They also stink to high heaven.
The seal cliffs - too far away to see the seals, but not too far to smell them.
Seals, and a very puffy seagull.

Of course, for many indigenous peoples, sealing and whaling work went against deeply held beliefs - but it was also one of the only ways of actually making a living as their land was taken by white settlers. Today, Whale Watch Kaikoura (the company we went out with) turns this around - it's Maori-owned, and committed to conservation. As their "About Us" section explains, "Since arriving in the Kaikoura area in 850AD, Ngai Tahu have lived and worked to a philosophy of sustainable management and sensible use of natural resources. As a Ngai Tahu owned company Whale Watch® operates strictly within this philosophy. It is a philosophy which human life is an integral part of a larger dimension where all living things have their rightful place." Whale activity in the Kaikoura area has actually increased since Whale Watch began, and by all indications, they are indeed respectful of the whales they take us tourists out to see.

Having seen three whales surface, breathe, and go back down under the waves again, our boat's captain steered toward some seal cliffs, where we saw - and smelled - the seals basking in the sun. There was also a colony of albatross, several of which we'd also seen winging their way across the water.

Dolphins underwater, racing ahead of the boat.
One of the dusky dolphins in the process of jumping alongside us.
Two dolphins, one on top, one just completing its jump, jumping for joy - or for the sheer aesthetics of it.

And then it was time to head home - but not before a pod of dusky dolphins found us and decided to accompany us along the way. Dusky dolphins, found only in the Southern Hemisphere, are smaller than the dolphins you see in the movies, or at Sea World, but regardless of size, they're extremely playful. They flipped through the air, raced with our boat, dove underneath us and came out again in front, did cartwheels and generally seemed quite excited to have a big boat to play around.

The surf, pounding away.

We loved Kaikoura - the whales, seals, dolphins, and birds, the winery, the mountains, the gorgeous scenery and the ocean - but Christchurch was calling, and so we headed on south, toward the city and our flight back to the North Island.

7. November 2003


All text and images © 2003 NoAura Productions. All rights reserved.

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