Kaikoura has long been known for the abundance of its wildlife. In early times this meant an profusion of food, leading to an early Maori settlement on the peninsula (the name derives from the Maori words for “food” and “crayfish”) . Centuries of capturing animals and birds for food have taken their toll, and today there are several conservation programmes in Kaikoura. However there is still enough wildlife to make exploring the peninsula a naturalist’s dream.
Whale Watching in Kaikoura
Much of the wildlife of the Kaikoura Peninsula lives in the water. This means you have to go offshore to see it, so we booked ourselves onto a whalewatching tour. Whale Watch Kaikoura reckon that they have a 95% success rate in spotting whales (in fact they are so confident that they offer a partial refund if no whales are sighted!). They say that on an average trip you will see two whales: anything more is a bonus. We equipped ourselves with some “all natural” sea-sickness pills (surprisingly effective) and braced ourselves for a bumpy ride.
We were lucky on two counts. Firstly, with the weather. It was brilliantly sunny with just a little bit of cloud hovering over the coastal mountains, meaning that the boat didn’t toss about too much. And, secondly, because it was not very long before we saw our first whale. Our guide, Ellie, gave us a running commentary as we went. “It’s a sperm whale,” she said. “But it’s a bit lazy and it’s not going to dive for us.”
She went on to explain that sperm whales were resident here all through the year but other varieties, including blue whales, visited at other times. Today we would only see sperm whales, and they would all be males (“it’s too cold for the females”). As if on cue, another one appeared and obligingly did a great dive for us, its tail swishing in the air.
Another whale rose to the surface, and then another. “Look with your eyes as well as the camera,” said Ellie. By the time the fifth whale was sighted I heeded her words, and put the camera away. I was rewarded with a magnificent view of the fluke.
Albatrosses and Seabirds
But it is not just whales. According to a local tourist publication, Kaikoura is the best place in the world to see seabirds. Dozens of shearwaters were flying above the surface of the water, then from the corner of my eye I spotted a bird with an enormous wing span. Distracted by the whales, I missed that one but another appeared, bobbing up and down on the water like a farmyard duck. It was a wandering albatross, the first I had ever seen.
Seals and Dolphins
We came back past Barney’s Rock, where whalers of old kept a lookout for whales. Today it is home to a colony of New Zealand blue seals, and we saw a number of pups playing on the rock.
The boat made a sudden diversion, then stopped. A pod of splendid black and white dolphins was playing around the boat. They swam, and dived, and flipped, showing off to their audience. They moved too fast for good photographs, so I allowed myself just to enjoy watching them.
The total tally for the trip was five whales, seals, dolphins, albatrosses and shearwaters!
A Colony of Fur Seals
Back on land, don’t miss the seal colony at Point Kean. In the past seals were heavily hunted, and their numbers diminished, but this colony has become a major breeding site. When I visited several fur seals were scattered about the rocks, basking in the sun.
Most of them seemed to be happy lying on the rocks, or sliding clumsily into the water, but one or two inquisitive males were nosing around the car park. We heeded the warnings that they can become aggressive if disturbed, and kept them at a safe distance!
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway curves right around the peninsula, offering plenty of opportunities to spot birds. We had already seen wading birds – including shags and oystercatchers – near the seal colony and set off on the cliff top path in the hope of spotting some more. In the event we didn’t see anything other than a goldfinch in a tree but it was a pleasant walk all the same, with sea views and a walk down to Whaler’s Bay (where whalers of old would keep a look out for their quarry).
We passed through the shearwater conservation area. At one time shearwaters were a major source of food for the people who lived on the peninsula, causing a major depletion in their population, but now they are protected. Although we didn’t see any on our evening walk, it is often possible to spot large flocks of shearwater here during the spring and summer (and in fact we did see some off shore the following day). If you are lucky you may also see the blue penguins that frequent these waters.