We’re still in Christchurch, although our time here is now drawing to a close, just one more day and then it’s back to Wellington. Friday was spent exploring the city centre; we took in the square and some of the shops before venturing into the aquarium where we saw – amongst other things – some live kiwis.
Kiwis are very strange: a tubby body, sitting atop bird feet and gifted with a small rodent like head on which is a long narrow beak that almost resembles a straw. This was the only wildlife we weren’t allowed to photograph, due largely to their nervous disposition. These flightless birds are under threat in New Zealand because of the introduction of non-indigenous wildlife such as ferrets, stoats, cats and dogs. As we saw more of the islands wildlife this was a message we heard a lot. It’s easy to see why the islanders are so protective of their fragile ecosystem when much of it has been lost or threatened already.
Saturday we were up before dawn. An in room breakfast feast was a great way to start what would turnout to be a special day indeed. A weather worn kiwi – the human kind – picked us up to take us on a two and a half hour drive to Kaikoura.
What the hell am I talking about? Why is Kaikoura interesting? What’s so bloody special about Saturday?
I’ll tell you: Kiakoura is whale country.
The journey took us out through the Christchurch suburbs into the Canterbury plains. Plains that are a vast expanse of flat agricultural land ringed by the mountains on one side and the pacific on the other. As we made our way the sun painted the landscape in sheets of gold and orange as it climbed into the azure sky. The plains are where much of New Zealand’s wine comes from, vineyards dotting the landscape between the sheep and cattle farms.
Colour is a big feature of New Zealand from lush evergreen through yellow and the first shades of amber in the promise of the coming autumn to the snow capped mountains. Drive through the plains and you’ll see all of it.
We emerged from the hills to follow the sea around the coast drawing nearer to Kaikoura and our first stop. Nestled on the side of the road with the Pacific breaking on the shingle beach in front of us lay a treat. Fur seals were once hunted nearly to the point of extinction in New Zealand, now they’re protected and the numbers have recovered to the point where stopping by the side of the road you can peer down on them. And we did.
The colony lay sprawled out in the sun, enjoying a leisurely morning on the beach that we were keen not to disturb. They’re funny creatures, somewhat ungainly on land, clearly intelligent and eerily reminiscent of humans in some mannerisms, particularly when stretched out sleeping. They sleep in the oddest of positions, including upside down and curled up into balls of fur.
Once in the water they’re different animals altogether: sleek, fast, clever hunters that blend into the sea in no time at all. Reluctantly we travelled on, leaving the seals to their nap.
By the time we got to Kaikoura the sun was out in force and the Southern Alps were wreathed in an ethereal mist that left you in no doubt as to why Peter Jackson chose to shoot The Lord Of The Rings in New Zealand.
We were warned before we boarded the boat that there was a high chance of sea sickness due to the weather, in fact it was touch and go if we would make the trip at all as the first boat that day had been cancelled. I felt pretty confident that I would be fine as I have pretty good sea legs but G is often unwell in boats and so I purchased ginger capsules for us both. Though I drew the line at motion sickness bands, they offended my pride.
You know the one that goes before the fall.
We boarded the purpose built, double-hulled, engine powered boat at a small jetty just outside of Kaikoura. It was much faster than I thought it would be, skipping along at a fair old whack that had me grinning with glee as G gripped my hand and closed her eyes. Neptune, it seems, has a sense of humour.
Finding whales – we were in search of sperm whale – is not so much of a science as an art and there are no guarantees that you’ll see any. After all the whale doesn’t get a cut of your admission fee, he – you only get males off New Zealand because of the temperature – doesn’t give a toss that you’re only there for a few weeks. We were aided by the start of migration season and a boat that had already sighted some of the resident whales.
South Island sits on the edge of a great undersea canyon where warm currents mix with colder currents to produce a nutrient rich environment that makes for good feeding for a whole host of wildlife. We made a couple of stops where our skipper put a hydrophone in the water to ascertain how many – if any – whales were present and where.
Two failed attempts later a circling Cesna briefly raised our hopes that we would soon be seeing a sperm whale but when the voice came over the radio it was Orca (killer whales) not our quarry that had been sighted.
Determined, we set off again for where another boat had sighted a whale earlier that morning. Sperm whale dive, on average, for around forty-five minutes as they hunt for their prey – including the giant squid with which they regularly do battle. However they have been recorded diving for up to two and a half hours; we crossed everything that this was not going to be one of those times.
Our first whale – a resident whale – surfaced of our port bow sending all of us scrabbling for a viewing position with G and myself on the upper deck looking down at our first sperm whale. A slick charcoal grey ridge sticking a few inches out of the water marking the edge of his forehead down to a knobbly ridge flagging the back of his skull, spray shooting periodically into the air as he built up his oxygen reserves for another dive. We took in the size of this enormous creature as it floated near the side of the boat before he brought his huge bird shaped tail out of the water as it went under in search of dinner.
Our next encounter was with another resident whale. In this case an animal that Whale Watch has been tracking since the projects inception twenty odd years ago and that had been seen around twenty minutes before we saw our first whale. He surfaced a little while ahead of our arrival but we had a chance to take in this even larger whale before the behemoth waved his tail at us and slipped away.
Well, by this time I was happier than a pig in shit. I’ve always wanted to see whales in the wild and I’d done it but not only that, I’d managed to see one of the rarer species. I felt elated, I felt strange, I felt an odd sense of dizziness as I sloped back to my seat but I pushed it to one side looking forward to our next task: Orca.
We made our way over to where the pod of Orca had been sighted and within a few moments one had breached right in front of our boat. A fact our commentator noted had not happened to her in seven years of working at Whale Watch, our good day was about to get magical.
Known as the wolves of the sea, Orca or killer whales are actually more closely related to dolphins than whales with their name coming from their ability – in groups – to kill whales. They’re the top predator of the ocean eating pretty much anything that strikes their fancy although you’ll be relieved to hear humans do not feature on that list. They are intelligent and fortunately for us inquisitive.
We came across two males and a female. One of the males broke off pretty early, bored of boats no doubt, but the remaining male along with his lady friend came in for a closer look. They circled us giving us plenty of opportunity to see their heads and impressive dorsal fins before heading next to as well as under the boat. Up on the upper deck looking down I managed to see the whole of the male Orca from snout to tail: nearly the entire length of the boat. Breathtaking, humbling, beautiful, he rolled on his side to get a view of the people staring down at him and it was utterly wonderful.
Now, I’ve seen Orca before when I was much younger visiting Seaworld with my parents. Sat as part of the audience, cooing and shrieking, as the whales breached and pranced for the paying public through what has to be said *is* an entertaining show. I’m not saying this to be politically correct or some environmental hippy but it is nothing like seeing these animals in the wild. In the wild these creatures move differently, look different – healthy and alert – and have a grace that you simply don’t see in captivity.
We began our journey back to shore. Three’s the charm though and before we’d got very far a whale surfaced right in front of us! We stopped off to take in this last sperm whale, a large chap who was so uninterested in the boat that he rolled over and went to sleep depriving us of a tail wave but showing us a new trick. Strangely he seemed to take my stomach with him when he went under.
What was this curious feeling in my belly?
As we skipped along the curious feeling of dizziness began to recede as I cast my gaze out at the open sea. I could see albatross riding the air above the ocean and the odd boat bobbing on the swell, something silver darted through the air. At first I thought it was my imagination or worse the ghosting that precedes the migraines I occasionally get. Then it happened again and I realised they were dolphins. The boat slowed as we were given the opportunity to run outside and take pictures.
A strange thing happened as the boat slowed. My stomach, last seen riding a sperm whale down a pacific canyon returned as if let go on a giant rubber band that shot it up from the depths into my belly and out through my mouth. Yes ladies and gents: I, the proud owner of what were thought to be two unshakable sea legs, was seasick.
Sore, tired, smelling faintly of sick and, clutching a rather warm paper bag of contents you would not wish to gaze on, I returned to shore. I didn’t care: it was completely and utterly worth it.
I’d even do it again.
* All photos are courtesy of G.