Whale of a time in Kaikoura

Last updated 10:13 17/12/2012

This Saturday was the one-year anniversary since the bloke and I got married.  It's hard to imagine that this weekend last year we were running around like crazies, taking over my Mum's front lawn in Portobello and celebrating tying the knot... As much last year's was a fun, exciting and memorable wedding weekend, it was a bit of a relief to get to this year and realise I didn't have to be Bridezilla again (and I'm sure Mum was relieved to have her lawn to herself this year too!).

(As an aside, in true nature-nerd fashion, last year when we went down to Allan's Beach on the Otago Peninsula to get our wedding photos taken, a female New Zealand sea lion was lying across the track down to the beach. As a result I had to climb a fence in my wedding dress!).

To celebrate our first year of nuptials, the bloke and I headed to our favourite camping spot in Kaikoura on Friday after work to get up early to make the 7.30am whale watch tour. 

Whale Watch Kaikoura is probably New Zealand's most famous eco-tourism outfit - beginning from very modest roots when local fishermen would take people out to see the enormous sperm whales feeding in the deep waters of the Kaikoura canyon.  The interest and enthusiasm ballooned, and today Whale Watch is a thriving commercial operation, owned and operated by Ngai Tahu.

Whale 1

Gotcha! managed to get the quintessential whale tail shot - you have to be quick though!

Once a whaling town, Kaikoura suffered a downturn with the collapse of the industry. For years it stayed a sleepy little fishing village - until the launch of the whale watching industry. That spawned a huge range of eco-tourism opportunities, dolphin watching and dolphin swimming, seal swimming, fishing charters, wings over whales (flights to view them from above), and the hospitality services (restaurants, bars, motels and lodges), as well as created a drawcard for artists, jewellers and sculptors who flocked to the town to sell their wares.  It is a wonderful story of how protecting your backyard can be of enormous economic benefit to a whole community.

It's hard to believe we'd never been out on the Whale Watch tour before - but I guess it's that thing where people tend not to visit the highlights in their own backyard. Let me just say I am so glad we took the time to do this.

The first tour of the day is the trickiest, because there's no way of knowing exactly where the whales are (as opposed to the later tours where I guess the captains have some idea based on where the whales were found in previous tours). Though the mighty sperm whales can grow up to 20 metres long, searching for them out at sea truly is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Luckily the Whale Watch crew are pretty adept at whale spotting, plus they use a directional hydrophone (underwater microphone) which allows them to hear the noisy "clicks" of the sperm whales as they make their way to the surface from the inky ocean depths. 

We searched around for what seemed like ages a few nautical miles offshore from Kaikoura, until the crew heard the clicks, pointed the boat toward them, and then it was all hands on deck as passengers searched for the distinctive forward-facing spray from the sperm whale blowhole as he breaks the surface.

Whale 2

Thar she blows! The forward facing blowhole of the sperm whale makes for a forward-facing 'blow' when the whale breaks the surface.

I say he, because the sperm whales off Kaikoura are all blokes - a group of bachelors that spend 20 or so years gorging themselves on the enormous amount of food (squid mostly, but anything that can fit down their huge throats will do - on record for sperm whales so far has been an intact 4m mako shark and a 44 gallon drum!) to be found in the nutrient-rich waters of the Kaikoura canyon. 

These whales are essentially teenage boys that have got too big for their boots with their mothers in the tropics, and have been kicked out of home to learn how to be real men (whales). So they spend a lot of their time in and around the Kaikoura waters feasting until they are big enough to claim mates of their own. One male, Tiaki (who we saw twice) has been coming to Kaikoura for over 20 years, for several months at a time. 

A gargantuan sperm whale in the flesh is a sight to behold. These things are just ridiculously big. The opportunity to view them occurs when they rise to the surface to catch their breath, usually after they have made one of their incredibly deep ocean dives - which can be up to two kilometres. The whales can hold their breath for up to two hours, but usually around half an hour or so, and then after 10 or 15 minutes resting on the surface, they take a big breath and head for the bottom again.

It is the regular occurence of these big boys breathing on the surface that provides the tourism opportunity for Whale Watch - and it has helped turn the fortunes of the town around.

The Whale Watch team say their philosophy hinges on the twin Maori concepts of taking care of visitors and reverence for the natural world - and that came through in spades this weekend. Thanks for having us, guys!

Whale 3

And we'll let Tiaki wave the final goodbye - thanks again for having us Whale Watch - it was tops!

Have you been whale watching? What did you think? Is it on your bucket list?

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