Tales from the deep - wildlife encounters in Kaikōura

Kaikōura’s abundant marine life is as active as ever following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck there a year ago.

Kaikōura’s abundant marine life is as active as ever following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck there a year ago. From sperm whales to dusky and Hector’s dolphins, New Zealand fur seals and sea birds, experience a day in the life chasing encounters with these amazing creatures.

It’s 8.30am on a crisp, spring morning as kayak guides Conner Stapley, Arye Sampson and Cowan Fearn gear up for another day on the water. They’re full of smiles as they load kayaks onto a trailer, clients into a van and head for South Bay on the Kaikōura Peninsula. By 10am, after a quick on-land kayak lesson and safety briefing, they’re guiding their clients to a seal colony near Sharks Tooth Point.

A few kilometres away, a small plane captained by pilot Edward Griffiths is preparing to take off from Kaikōura Airport. Griffiths, one of five pilots at Wings over Whales, steers the Gippsland GA8 Airvan over grid-like paddocks and miniature houses and heads for the ocean. He has already warned his customers he can’t guarantee whale sightings – after all, nature is in charge. But he has a good feeling today as he scans the rippled surface for signs of a sperm whale. He knows one has already been spotted this morning.

Back on the water, Stapley, Sampson and Fearn point out a fur seal playing with its morning tea – a small octopus. The seal population around Sharks Tooth Point is mostly juvenile, and the fit, strong males and females appear slow and slug-like as they sun themselves on the rocks. But looks can be deceiving. Sampson says fur seals can travel at remarkable speeds in water – up to 50km per hour. The kayakers raft up in a sheltered spot as he showers them with other interesting facts.

Stapley, who has been guiding for Kaikoura Kayaks for just over a year, says his seagoing office never gets old. Like many, he sometimes struggles to get out of bed for work in the morning. That’s only until he remembers the views from his kayak – sheer cliff faces, craggy rocks and snowy mountain tops. And the wildlife. Kaikoura Kayaks guarantees sightings of local fur seals, as well as chance encounters with blue penguins and dusky dolphins as they duck and dive around the scenic coastline.

Stapley’s favourite bird is the Hutton’s shearwater or tītī (muttonbird), which is the world’s only alpine-dwelling seabird. Locals call it “the Kaikōura tītī”, due to the fact that it burrows high in the Seaward Kaikōura Range. As he speaks, a large group of them swoop amongst the kayaks – like a black cloud passing low across the water.

The group of kayakers Stapley and the others are guiding turn back just near Whalers Bay, which is where Stapley discovered a strange patch of bubbling water while inspecting the coastline soon after the November 2016 earthquake. An expert later told him the earthquake had opened up rocks below and freed water and gas – just like what happens when you open a can of fizzy drink. Stapley named the phenomenon Hope Springs after his young daughter and because the Hope Fault was one of the faults that ruptured in the quake. The bubbling has moved a bit since the initial discovery and Stapley doesn’t know how long it will last.

It’s easy to see the impact the 7.8-magnitude earthquake had on the Kaikōura coastline through the windows of Griffiths’ small plane. Uplift from the quake basically rendered Kaikōura’s old low tide mark its new high tide mark. Shore platforms around the Kaikōura Peninsula were thrust up about a metre, creating more sunbathing space for seals. Boats were left sitting on dry ground. North of Kaikōura, the seabed rose almost 2m.

The uplift exposed beautiful but treacherous limestone formations at Okiwi Bay, between the town and Point Kean carpark on the Kaikōura Peninsula – where older, “retired” seals go to hang. It also created a new surf break at nearby Gooch’s Beach, which hardly ever had waves before November 2016, but does more consistently now. And with its sandy bottom, Gooch’s makes an ideal place for beginners.

The shaking also triggered major landslides and did extensive damage to Kaikōura’s main wharf, as well as buildings, roads, railways and highways. A new port facility opened on 14 November and the main route between Picton and Christchurch will open on 15 December.

Griffiths’ voice, audible under his plane’s engine, is animated as he reveals he has spotted a sperm whale. He does a gentle loop, about 150m above the water, giving his passengers a good look. Sperm whales are the 4th largest whales in the world, the largest of the toothed whales and the deepest diving – at speeds of up to 200m a minute. The record depth is 3km, off the coast of Sri Lanka. They usually lie on the surface for about five to 10 minutes to oxygenate. The sperm whale Griffiths has spotted is about 20m long. From the plane, his passengers can see its impressive outline and big white “beard”. 

Griffiths says male sperm whales live in Kaikōura’s waters year-round due to the unique submarine canyon just off its coast. “It is the deepest part of the ocean anywhere in the world near a landmass.”

This whale has been on the surface for about five minutes when Griffiths starts to count down: 10, 9, 8, 7… It flicks its giant tail and disappears into the blue, where it will stay for 40 to 60 minutes before coming to the surface again for air.

On the way back to Kaikoura Airport, Griffiths pilots the plane over a group of people swimming with a large pod of dusky dolphins. It is amazing to see the playful mammals surround the swimmers so fearlessly. “Dolphins are actually really interested in people,” he says. “They’re trying to figure us out as we’re trying to figure them out.”

The swimmers certainly look intriguing from the air, wallowing about in full wetsuits and bright-coloured flippers – not quite as graceful as their dolphin friends. “[It’s] more about you entertaining the dolphins than the other way around,” the swimmers were told during a briefing at Dolphin Encounter’s headquarters earlier. And to look “dolphin like”, arms by their sides.

Back on land, Willie Ford is using an old-fashioned ticker to record numbers as passengers board the Whale Watch Kaikoura bus. Ford drives them to South Bay where they board Tohora – an 18m catamaran, and meet their friendly crew. As with the other wildlife tours, staff can’t guarantee whale sightings. But it’s never for lack of trying. Every now and then, Kaikōura’s resident whales decide to take a little holiday for themselves and passengers get an 80 per cent refund.

The wildlife operators are constantly in touch regarding sightings, which is crucial as timing is everything. “We only use passive means [to locate them] – no dangerous form of sonar or fish finding equipment. We don’t tag, train or feed them,” says Whale Watch guide Haley Baxter. Today, out on the water, skipper Jay Lewis is employing the help of a “hydrophone” – a microphone tuned into the clicking sound or “echo location” whales use to communicate, find food and navigate. The sound can travel for miles. The closer the whale, the louder the click.

GPS co-ordinates help and staff are also skilled at spotting spouts or “a puff of smoke” expelled from blowholes on the top of whales’ heads, something they do to remove nasties that build up in their systems underwater – like carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Passengers sometimes help spot unusual whales too, Baxter says, such as “the seaweed whale, the log-of-wood whale”. Today’s tour is out of luck when it comes to whale sightings but their disappointment gives way to excitement when they spot scores of dusky dolphins and a huge albatross.

Few places in the world match the consistency of Kaikōura in terms of daily dolphin sightings without feed or lures, and the dusky is reputed to be one of the most acrobatic dolphin species. Their spectacular leaps can include jumps, side slaps, backflips and somersaults. Dolphin Encounter staff are trained to scan the surface of the ocean for pods of dolphins (100 to 1000 individuals) and when they’ve found a decent-sized one, the skipper slows the boat down and the swimmers get ready.

Goggled and flippered, the swimmers sit on the back of the vessel before sliding into the water and channeling their inner dolphin – squeaking, squealing and singing to get their attention. Staff watch as the duskies leap and swim circles around them. Back on the boat, buzzing after their experience, the swimmers warm up with soup, hot chocolate and Gingernut biscuits (a Kiwi favourite) while the boat heads back to land.

Many of the people on the vessel will be heading out of town tomorrow, on to the next leg of their New Zealand adventure. The wildlife isn’t going anywhere though – nor the staff at Kaikoura Kayaks, Wings over Whales, Dolphin Encounter and Whale Watch Kaikoura. Together, they’ll do it all over again.