Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kaikoura - in search of the whale's song

When I was young, my grandparents were models for Gary Blythe when he illustrated the childrens book The Whale's Song. I loved reading it, and although I was a teenager when it was published, seeing my Nana and Grandad in print added a touch of extra realism to the story, make believing that I could have been Lilly - the little girl who listened to the whale's song. This book was the start of a fascination for the graceful giants that roam our oceans, and since I first read it I have always been keen to see a whale for myself.

From living in Sydney, my understanding of whale watching was that it is a seasonal activity, taking place as the whales complete their migration from May to September, so when I realised that Whale Watch Kaikoura offer year-round opportunities, I was delighted. Inspite of having heard that Kaikoura was a veritable haven for aquatic wildlife, I was a little skeptical. On further investigation, I discovered that the Kaikoura Canyon, just 1km from the coast, offers a unique geographical situation, encouraging an abundance of marine life, including a never ending stream of passing whales, along with several resident sperm whales - one of the only places in the world where this opportunity is available throughout the calendar year.

My alarm went off and I jumped straight out of bed, in spite of the early hour, then proceeded to bash around the unfamiliar house in the dark, trying to dress without waking anyone. First light was just breaking as I arrived at the whale way station (ha ha - like all good New Zealand railway stations, Kaikoura’s has a dual purpose - in this case it houses Whale Watch Kaikoura’s base camp). There was only one car in the car park, so I walked slowly, looking out into the murky depths and wondering about the height of the monstrous waves that crashed on the shore nearby.

As more people arrived, I headed inside to check in. When you book your experience, you are warned that the trip is dependant on weather conditions. Out trip carried a sea sickness warning, and the rest of the trips that day were still marked as unconfirmed so far. After checking in, I joined many of my fellow whale watchers in purchasing a sea sickness tablet. I’d intended to keep it in my camera bag until needed, but in the end, mainly out of fear of not being able to find it at the right time, I downed it with a much needed caffeine fix from the on site cafĂ©.

After a quick introduction and safety briefing, we headed to our boat; as we piled on we were advised to sit at the back for a less bumpy ride. In spite of my usual wimpishness, I felt strangely compelled to sit in the second row from the front. We headed out to sea, being briefed that we must stay inside the boat and seated due to the high speed we were moving. You’re not kidding me - we flew across the water, jumping over each massive wave as we hit it. As we sped along, our host kept our attention, with a constant flow of interesting information about the canyon, the marine life it attracted, and the whales.

Before I'd arranged the trip, I had done some research into the whale watching options and had discovered that you could go by helicopter or by boat. The helicopter trip is often touted as the superior option, as from above you will see the whole whale, whereas on the boat you will most often only see the spray from their blowholes and a portion of their back, their dorsal fin and tail. In spite of this I was keen to go by boat, not only because the trip was much longer (approx two and a half hours as opposed to half an hour), but also because I felt that I would get a closer look and have the opportunity to see that all important flick of the tail as they swam back down from a better angle. Seeing the images that our hosts showed us on the boat really confirmed that for me that I'd made the right choice, as well as highlighting just how enormous these mammals are! I was also impressed with their ethical standpoint, using only their eyes and ears to track and respecting the whale's desires by staying well back and following their lead.

Being the first trip of the day meant that we didn’t have the knowledge of the previous boats to guide us straight to the whales. Our only option was to head out to one of the spots where the whales often hang out and listen for them. When we reached the canyon, the boat came to a halt and we headed outside, bobbing on the ocean, surrounded by an endless variety of bird life, gliding on the wind then diving down to the surface. Meanwhile, the Captain took out a long conical device with a pair of headphones attached, an underwater directional hydrophone, and stuck the end of it in the water. He was listening for the whale's click - the means by which they communicate and navigate while they are deep under the water. He heard a whale and we all piled back inside to race of to the place where he had pinpointed it.

When we arrived in the right area, we all rushed back outside and those of us who weren't too green (I was grateful at this point for the seasickness tablet...) climbed the stairs to the upper viewing platform, and started scanning the waters. An announcement came from our host to say that they could see the whale, but I could only see water and birds. Then one of the crew members pointed the whale out to me, logging; a small portion of him visible as he hovered near the surface gathering oxygen for his next dive to the depths of the canyon to feast on giant squid. I raised my camera to my eye and snapped as many pictures as I could as his tail shot into the air then he dove down and was gone.

Tiaki disappearing below the surface 

The whale, recognisable to the crew by his markings, was one of the resident males; Tiaki. As we headed back inside they explained that on average, a whale stays on the surface for approximately ten minutes before diving for around 45 minutes. As we couldn't hear Tiaki after we saw him, there was a chance that he was in the shallows and might reappear, but while the captain was listening he had heard another whale, so we headed in that direction. As we sped across the water, one of the crew members spotted the whale, and then saw it dive before we had had a chance to get to it... rather than a 45 minute wait we listened again, and headed off in hot pursuit of another round of clicks. Although there were clearly a few people suffering with the motion of the ocean, I found the thrill of the chase exhilarating, and bouncing over the waves in the hope of another sighting really added to the experience for me.

This time, we were rewarded for our efforts and as we headed out to the viewing deck we could see a spray of water rising five metres into the air every ten seconds or so. We could see Mati Mati, another resident male, on the surface of the water, where he remained for approximately four minutes. He looked huge, and I had to remind myself that I could only see a small part of him - adult male sperm whales can grow to up to 20.5 metres - truly as big as a whale! Suddenly, he started to curve up out of the water and the crew told us that he was about to dive.  He looked so graceful as the curved section rippled along to his tail and he lifted it high into the air before disappearing tail-tip last.

Logging, with a spray coming from the blowhole

About to dive down again - cameras at the ready everybody!

With a splash of his tail he was gone

Although we had only been there watching him for a few minutes, and we had only seen a small portion of the entire whale, it was a magical, breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience. I felt a real sense of camaraderie with my fellow camera touting whale watchers, as we all talked about what we had just seen and compared photographs.

At this point, as the whales weren't staying on the surface for long, the crew decided to call it a day on the whale chase and take us to an area which is popular with Dusky Dolphins for the remainder of our time. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by around 20 energetic dolphins swimming around the hull of the boat and performing for our cameras. Dusky dolphins are one of the most acrobatic species of dolphins, and they certainly didn't disappointing - leaping out of the water, flipping and synchronised swimming - there was so much going on that it was hard to know where to look! I found a new respect for wildlife photographers as I struggled to keep up with the speed of these playful creatures, who swam so close that I struggled with my telephoto lens - they coaxed out another set of smiles as well as squeals of delight from us all though.

I had a spellbinding morning with Whale Watch Kaikoura - when we returned to the shore I was ready to turn around and do it all again. My photos are hardly going to make National Geographic, but I'd had such a fantastic time, and I floated around on a high for the rest of the day. If you're ever in the area, it's worth making a detour to Kaikoura for the marine life alone, although the town itself, and the picturesque coastline with mountains right to the waters edge, is well worth a visit too.

Beautiful Kaikoura waking up for the day


  1. Fab Suzi, amazing writing, vivid descriptions - you brought it all to life and I felt like I was there with you. Well done and do keep 'em coming, love feeling like an insider in your amazing adventures. Much love Abby xxx

  2. Fantastic post. Almost as good as being there.

    1. Thanks Carole! Almost as good, but I think everyone should try it for themselves, at least once!

  3. OH wow that is amazing - I so love seeing Dolphins so I can imagine how spectular seeing whales would be - fantastic :)

    thanks for sharing your photos.

  4. Whale watching is such an amazing experience! Your photos turned out quite well - we've been a couple of times and I've never managed to get a decent shot!

  5. Is it too dangerous to do this with a toddler do you think? I'm devouring your blog at the moment as we're off to NZ South Island next week with our (just) 3 year old! x