If there’s one thing New Zealand does well, it’s scenic views. Of course, a close second to this is actually letting you know about the views, by which I mean the amount of signage devoted to one scenic spot. As my German friend Elise and I departed from Christchurch one sunny Monday morning, setting off on our trip around the top of the South Island, I marveled yet again at the country’s ability to proffer so many reasons to pull over from the main state highway. If it wasn’t the sandcastle-esque Cathedral Cliffs by Gore Bay, then it was St. Anne’s Lagoon, which, as peaceful as a pastoral scene it was, hardly seemed to necessitate the three signs alerting us to its existence ten meters off S.H.6.
This particular leg of my year-long, cross-country journey had been in the research and development stages for a while. After my time in Thailand, I knew I still had nearly half of the South Island to see before making my way up north to Wellington for the summer. Several key must-sees (and must-dos) remained: the marine life of Kaikoura and the various activities associated with it, the famous beaches of Abel Tasman National Park and the accompanying sea kayak trips along them, and even the northernmost point of the South Island just near Farewell Spit. The thing that troubled me, though, as I drew plans together in Queenstown, was just exactly how I planned to transport myself around. Hiring a rental car was, cost-wise, out of the question. But the second best alternative, bussing it from town to town, would not only prove still expensive, but would also not afford me the freedom I wanted to stop and explore the aforementioned scenic sights on the side. I wasn’t looking for a ride strictly from point A to point B.
And so it was that on yet another mind-thrilling day in Premier Taste, Elise began telling me about how the friend she’d come traveling with wanted to stay in Queenstown through Christmas while she herself only had a few months left in New Zealand and needed to get traveling again. Before exploring the North Island, though, she still had the rest of the South Island to cover and named many of the places I myself was hoping to see post-Thailand. I was amazed at how the plan fell together on its own: Elise, who had just bought a car, didn’t want to travel on her own; I, more than happy to be someone’s traveling companion, needed transportation. Brilliant!
“Nice day, isn’t?” a man asks as we walked down the streets of Kaikoura, a town of just under 4,000 about two hours north of Christchurch along the east coast. And a nice day it was, I agreed, having just checked into our hostel, the Dolphin Lodge, appropriately named after the abundance of marine life found off the coast of Kaikoura. There is a rotating roster of titles often ascribed to the town, sometimes proclaiming it the “Marine Mammal Capital of the World,” “Whale Watch Capital of the World,” or the slightly combined version of “Marine Mammal Watching Capital of New Zealand.” Over fifty different species of marine mammals call the coast of Kaikoura home, including the Hectors dolphin and the New Zealand sea lion, both of which are found nowhere else in the world. The reason behind this plethora of sea life would come later, though.
It was a simple town, the kind of town with one supermarket, a handful of restaurants and cafés, and – just like the town of Franz Josef – one natural attraction that draws a large number of tourists each year…and by large I mean over one million. The attraction in Kaikoura happens to be the significant presence of marine life and one of the many tourist activities capitalizing on this occurrence is run by a company called WhaleWatch Kaikoura.
We arrived at the Whaleway Station (the company’s shameless pun, not mine) just in time to check in for our whale watch tour, one of several that runs every day. Recalling my infamous Foveaux Strait ferry crossing in July, I didn’t hesitate to hand over $2 for a motion sickness pill. The sea could change fast with the weather and a display board already flashed a seasickness warning. I’d learned my lesson and wouldn’t tolerate a repeat incident, no matter how blue and cloudless the sky looked or how calm the sea appeared.
A curly-haired guy named Tom, sporting aviator sunglasses and a chilled-out attitude, would prove to be our narrator for the afternoon. As the boat powered out to sea, Tom described the science behind the sea, explaining just what it is about the Kaikoura coastline that’s so darn popular with all those whales and dolphins. The unusual thing about Kaikoura, Tom says, is how the continental shelf drops off so close to land, going from 200 meters to 1,000 meters right offshore, facilitating not only marine life but also the proximity for humans to view this marine activity. The waters of the Kaikoura Canyon descend to 1600 meters, deeper than the average depth of the Grand Canyon. Additionally, there’s a remarkable “convergence of currents,” whereby warm water from the north mixes with the cold streaming in from the south, coming together in a way that makes it incredibly nutrient-rich. All these nutrients create the perfect feeding ground, which is a fitting occurrence given the literal meaning of Kaikoura as “meal of crayfish.” Among the 200 species of marine life found in Kaikoura are whales, dolphins, seals and even 75% of the world’s seabirds, including fourteen types of albatrosses, giving the town yet another potential title, the Marine Bird Capital of the World.
The star of our show, though, would be the male sperm whale, the waters being too cold for the females (and I don’t blame them). The sperm whale, the largest toothed predator in the world, also happens to be the deepest and longest diving. Not that we’d have the privilege of seeing too much of these fellows, though. Like a moving, breathing iceberg, it’s possible to see only about 10% of its body as it comes to the surface. Furthermore, Tom shares, each boat averages just one or two whale sightings per trip out. Talk about not getting your money’s worth.
Tom also described a possible theory on where the sperm whale got his name. Early whalers, perhaps “having knocked back too much rum,” cut open the whale’s head only to have a white gooshey substance ooze out – what they thought was sperm, but in reality was up to 2.5 tons of spermaceti oil they store in their head. Scientists eventually discovered the spermaceti works as both an amplifier for their acoustic lens and as an anchor. Cold water circulates around the mass of oil, dropping its temperature until it freezes into a wax and helps him dive more easily. When the whale needs to resurface for air, he pumps blood around the mass, melting the wax until its density is less than that of the ocean.
“So who here’s been whale watching before?” Tom asks and I was proud to be the only raised hand on the boat, having gone a few summers back with my family off the coast of Boston. I knew it would work against me, though, as our trip had been particularly spectacular – a whale breached, actually flipping its entire body out of water. I tried not to expect the same to happen again, or else I could expect disappointment. Although a woman named Lydia was apparently the “official whale spotter,” taking a seat next to the captain, binoculars strung around her neck, we’re all encouraged to keep an eye out for our underwater friends. Only until we see a waterspout twice, though, are we allowed to alert the crew. In that case, Tom clarified, “I give you full permission to kick, scream, shout, dance, do whatever it takes to get the staff’s attention.”
Our first whale in and I see the experience would most definitely be different from Boston. Where I’d seen whale-flipping and tale-slapping, the Kaikoura whales were far less about the show. They were there to breathe, and breathe they did. After several waterspouts (impressive, nonetheless, but how many pictures do you really need of them?) the whale would dive, giving us a window of about three seconds in which to photograph his tail. Moreover, Tom – obviously attuned to sperm whale behavior – was able to predict almost exactly when the whale was going to dive. Accordingly, he’d tell us to whip that windswept hair out of our eyes once and for all and have our camera out. With one whale, Tom preps us, saying “Get your cameras ready, folks, he’s about to dive…no, he’s just playing games with us,” as the waterspouts kept coming. Typical male, I thought, my camera poised and ready.
But the boys didn’t disappoint. One and after another, they kept coming, or rather, we kept finding them. “It’s our lucky day,” Tom says after our third whale sighting, “It’s not often we spend a whole day running between whales, no tracking whatsoever, relying solely on our eyes.” And boy was I grateful. Even though the company promises an 80% refund if no whales are spotted the entire tour, I didn’t want to settle with a money-back guarantee. I went out to whalewatch and some whales to watch were exactly what I wanted.
As we turned around and headed back for shore, I had to agree with Tom as he said, “It was definitely a good day for whale watching in Kaikoura, folks,” with a touch of that facetious air you often hear from sports announcers at the start of a game, as comfortable in their press boxes as a king gazing on his kingdom. You never can tell with tour guides, whether the lines they feed you have any ounce of originality in them, but from the final count, I figured he wasn’t completely misleading us. In total, we watched five whales dive up close, could see three waterspouts from a distance, and two whales just eluded us before we could get any closer. “Seeing five sperm whales dive in one day doesn’t happen very often at all,” Tom says, our boat pulling up to the dock. “Count yourselves very lucky. That really was an amazing trip.”
I only hoped our luck would continue as I awoke the next morning, with dolphin swimming on the agenda for the day. We had a few hours before we needed to check in for our swim, so we decided to drive around the Kaikoura Peninsula in search of the well-known seal colony, the seals famous in many a tourist’s blog for coming up the beach as far as the car parks. Some “colony” I found there, though, seeing only four seals. “Where are they?” I kept asking, “Where are those seals?” I may sound demanding, after expecting to watch whales the first day, then upset at the lack of seals, and surely, I do keep an open mind and open expectations in most of my travels, but when you look on a map and see “Seal Colony” printed in neat pink letters, you’d like to think they’d actually be there when you show up!
After my disappointing visit with the furry, flippered colonists, Elise suggested we visit the gardens in town, her guidebook having mentioned Kaikoura’s Garden of Memories as one worth seeing. Earlier that morning, she asked one of the workers at our hostel where it was located but all Elise got in return was a strange look as the girl said, “Huh, I’ve never heard of that.” Not ones to be easily deterred, we started walking anyways. A look at my map and I see “Memorial Gardens” printed in small letters. Oooh, I think, of course! The garden’s proper title was obviously lost in translation from Elise’s German guidebook. Happy to have sorted it out, I walk into the garden with the feeling of having achieved a small victory, similar to completing a puzzle or a Sudoku. As we exited through the front gate, I turned around only to see a sign: “Garden of Memories.” Well darn if Elise wasn’t right after all! No matter what its name might or might not have been, the gardens were understated and lovely, a simple halfmoon of a pathway, lined with arching whalebones, enclosing a small green complete with the usual war memorial. A small plaque honored Ms. Lydia Washington, the woman who first planted the gardens after WWI. As another sign read, she “was given whalebones” to use, but all I could find myself asking was who had a spare set of whale jawbones laying around in the first place? She tended the gardens until her death at the age of 82 in 1946, at which point she had come to be known as the Grand Old Lady by those around the town. I hope I myself live to achieve such a noble moniker.
Soon it came time to report to the Dolphin Encounter headquarters, the only company in Kaikoura licensed for dolphin swimming experiences. After being fitted out for our wetsuits – hood, suit, flippers, mask and snorkel? check! – we gathered in the auditorium to watch a briefing video. The majority of the video was devoted to tips on how to attract the dolphins. Diving head first, circling around, and swimming with our arms by our sides were all ways we were encouraged to “be dolphin-like,” even singing. Dolphins live in a sonic world, after all, so any sound we made could only help our case. Having worked at the bar in Queenstown, the video continued more and more into what I found to be a hilarious comparison to going out at night, interested in picking up someone. “Dolphins are not interested in you, you have to make an effort to attract them to you,” a narrator says in a serious tone, “You must entertain them. Sometimes they’re interested, sometimes they’re not…we want you to be aware so you don’t go home disappointed.” If only such a video were available to caution young party-goers before heading out on the town for a big night, we all might have fewer broken hearts.
Boarding the boat, our group of ten met our guide for the afternoon, a guy about my age named Owen. After a few introductory remarks and the general rigmarole about life jackets and fire safety, Owen says, “There aren’t many things you need to know about me save that yes, I am Scottish, and yes, my hair is the color of ginger.” If there was ever a guy made for his job, it was Owen. “And no, I don’t spend all of my time throwing one fist in the air and shouting, ‘Freedom!’” Outgoing, funny, and full of information and jokes, he stood at ease in front of us and balanced out our all-too-reticent captain, Mike, as we flew across the water in search of pods of dusky dolphins.
With the scientific name of Lagenorhynchus Obscurus (from the Greek words for bottle and nose and the Latin for dark or indistinct), the dusky dolphin can be found only off the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, off the coast of South Africa, off of South America near Argentina, and in the South Atlantic Ocean. Being only 1.6 to 1.8 meters in length, it measures in as one of the smaller dolphins, but is still known for its acrobatic abilities, entertaining itself and others with leaps, jumps, and even somersaults – forwards and backwards. And despite its size, the dusky dolphin is a promiscuous little thing. Owen tells us that one scientist observed a female mating five times. With three different males. In two minutes. You’d think that with all that activity, these dolphins would need some serious sleep, but they don’t actually sleep. They merely “rest,” shutting off half their brains while they continue to swim.
All fascinating information, of course, but nothing compared to actually coming face-to-face with them in the water. There isn’t one word I can use to describe my experience that afternoon. On one hand, it was amazing. Phenomenal. Otherworldly. As soon as I slipped off the back of the boat into the water, a toasty 11°C, any tips I’d picked up from the briefing video went the way of my body temperature. The last thing on my mind was remembering to sing into my snorkel or to keep my arms by my side. I had more important things to attend to; namely, breathing. But thankfully my frantic motions didn’t ward off the dolphins too much. I was instantly struck by their grace, by the speed with which they darted around me. One dolphin emerged from the deep into my sight and I somehow managed to start circling, unsure if it would make any difference. As if making eye contact with me like in some 17th century courtship dance, the dolphin swam – if only for a few seconds – in the same direction as my circle. I’d like to think we made a perfect circle if seen from above. While many were on their own, a similar amount of dolphins swam together, and this I loved. At one point, I dove down – not an easy task in our overly buoyant wetsuits – and three dolphins came up and began to swim in a circle around me. I’ll never forget that moment.
But on the other hand, it was awful – physically, I mean. The water was frigid, knocking the breath out of me as soon as I entered it. Even while suited up from head to toe, the water still flooded in our wetsuits and chilled us more and more each time we climbed back on to the boat to race off towards more dolphins. To further complicate things, I was seasick. Not having realized it would be quite a boat ride away to swim, I hadn’t bothered with the motion sickness pill this time around. After our final swim – and spending over forty-five minutes in the water, quite the feat according to Owen – we peeled the wetsuits off and changed back into dry clothes. At this point, I took my place towards the back of the boat and hunched over, determined to make it to land sans incident. Which I did, but not without discomfort.
The entire afternoon was quite the opposite of my whale watching experience the day before. The whales, massive creatures that they were, moved in a much more foreseeable manner. Guide Tom was able to warn us far in advance about their dive so as to have our cameras ready, the perfect shot pretty hard to miss. But the dolphins? They darted by, in and out of vision in a matter of seconds, difficult to take in due to our peripheral visions already limited because of the mask. I had bought a disposable underwater camera to take with me on the swim, but I barely had time to take a picture before they were gone. Once developed, I am fully expecting twenty-seven shots of murky blue water, with a fin or flipper in the corner of one if I’m lucky.
Towards the end of our trip, Owen shared a few more bits of information on the dolphins, emphasizing the fact that our afternoon had been an entirely natural experience. The dolphins we had seen were totally wild – not fed nor enticed. We’d chased them, “So be proud of yourselves,” Owen says. Proud as I was, the dolphin encounter shattered my illusions and expectations. For whatever reason, when I thought of dolphin swimming before, it conjured images of some commercial affair involving Sea World and Free Willy, of some life-vested child holding onto the fin of a dolphin or trainers throwing fish in their open mouths. Clearly I am glad the dolphins I saw were as free as a dolphin could ever hope to be – all I’m saying is that it would’ve been nice if they’d stuck around a little longer so I could actually appreciate them.
So a sequel to the well-known Kiwi film Eagle vs. Shark could very well be Whale vs. Dolphin, set in none other than Kaikoura, New Zealand, of course. Want a dependable-yet-predictable afternoon with whales of a size that will overwhelm and inspire you to awe? Or would you rather exchange the stable whale-viewing periods for a more fleeting beauty, for something a little briefer, something with an edge to it – where dolphins move so fast you’re lucky you barely get a glimpse? The choice is yours, but if it was up to me, I wouldn’t choose at all.
Both worlds are yours for the taking, so pop that motion-sickness pill, don that impossible wetsuit and get to the water, people.