Trip Start Dec 02, 2008
Trip End Feb 27, 2009

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Saturday, January 3, 2009

We took the four hour ferry ride from Wellington to Picton on the South Island then transfered to one of the three train lines in the whole country (called the "Trans Coastal") to make our way down the east coast. Originally we were planning to go all the way to Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island but I had read that Kaikoura was a cool little town north of Christchurch so we changed our plans and stayed there for four nights. I'm glad we did because it was one of the highlights so far.

Kaikora is a sea animal paradise.  Back in the early 1900's it started as a Whaling Station and only in the past 20 years has whale watching become a full fledged inustry.  Aside from whales there are also dolphins, seals, crayfish and albatross.  Its not just coincidence that all this sea life gathers in Kaikora.  There is a huge sea trough that starts in Kaikora and extends north.  All the food the bigger animals feed on ends up "caught " at the southern end of the trough which happens to be where Kaikora is located.  Take a look at an underwater topographical land map and you'll see what I'm talking about.  We had crappy weather for the dolphin swimming. I ended up yakking a few times and it was ALMOST worth it to see all these dolphins simming with the boat and the people.  It was cool and if the weather had been calm then most likely i would have been fine.  But if you've been reading the blog the theme is that the weather does whatever it wants-- like your crazy grandmother who is off her meds or a rabid pitbull although not usually that mean.

As humans do, we adapted and instead of a boat we took the whale watching helicopter ride to avoid any yakking.  We saw the full length of a whale which was sweet but even better were the views of the Kaikora peninsula and the mountain range (check the pics).  We had a clear day and you could see almost everything.  And as an added bonus no one had to clean out my yack bucket this time around.  To give some background, on the Dolphin boat the staff are fully prepared for the yakkers.  First they direct you to the back of boat tell you to look at the land and then give you a bucket.  After you're finished they nicely clean it out and give back just in case.  Some of the best customer service i have had in NZ...not kidding.

Walking around the peninsula was interesting; the seals are funny on land rolling around and sleeping.  Even more impressive are the limestone formations that ring the peninsula and the odd rock formations.

I had read the swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat was a once-in-a-lifetime experience so we had already put ourselves on a waiting list since they are booked far in advance in the summer months. When we arrived in town we found out we got on one of the tours for the next day. The day we got to Kaikoura was lovely weather but as luck would have it, we woke up the next day and walked to the Dolphin Encounter in the wind and rain. I was nervous because I know John gets seasick. At first I figured they would cancel since the weather was so bad but it turns out they rarely cancel and it was too late for a refund. They told us the sea sickness warning was "moderate" and after we got into our wetsuits, snorkels, etc we found out there had been a problem with one of their boat's windshields getting damaged overnight during the high winds so we got a late start while they dealt with that. We were praying this meant the weather was clearing up but.... the sea was really rough once we got out there and when we stopped near the dolphin pod about 20 minutes later it wasn't much better. I hopped in the choppy water with the other 20 or so paying customers while John tried to recover on board. I consider myself a good swimmer but the visibility sucked underwater and I flailed about to the best of my ability not seeing a thing. We got back on board and the skipper took us to where he thought the dolphins had moved on to. Basically, you just continue getting in and out of the boat while they try to find the dolphins and let me tell you, the dolphins move FAST. it was unbelievable when we finally found them to see how fast they move, like torpedoes. I had been in the water about three times before we caught up with them and was getting tired hauling myself in and out of the boat in my flippers but was able to see a few while in the water. I then decided to join John on board the deck to watch from above and get some photos -- which we've attached here. We learned that the pod of dolphins may or may not be interested in you (i.e. dart under you, jump over you, circle back, etc). It depends on their mood and if you are able to make enough squeaky noises to capture their attention. These are the somewhat small Dusky Dolphins that stay around Kaikoura because a huge trench just offshore brings in a lot of food that all the marine life likes to eat. The last time the boat stopped was the best -- the dolphins played around a bit longer and after the boat got moving again they played around the front of the boat, almost leading it through the water. That's where I got a couple pretty good shots closer up but they still move so fast that by the time you focus in with the camera they are already almost out of the frame. It was a cool experience despite the conditions but i admit i was disappointed that we didn't have better weather. The rest of our time in Kaikoura had awesome weather so for some reason it was only that one day which sucked. Later when I heard a woman at our hostel talking about her amazing experience in the calm water with "hundreds" of dolphins swimming around her I had to grit my teeth. But that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

The next day we walked around the Kaikoura Peninsula, which takes most of the day, and we saw plenty of fat seals lazing about the rocks along the coast. One got pretty vocal and charged us a bit when we got too close but for the most part they totally ignore all the camera toting tourists. We didn't run into many people doing the entire peninsula walk once we got past the first seal colony so it was nice to be out and about in relative solitude. Early on the walk we stopped at a farm to watch sheep shearing. It was a small family-run operation. The wife's family used to own much of the land on the peninsula as farm land but now they own a much smaller chunk and just keep enough sheep to support two sheep shearing shows a day. It was funny to watch; the sheep getting sheared definitely knew what to expect and almost seemed to hold out it's legs one at a time to help get the job done faster. The helicopter ride the next day was AMAZING. you are up and over the water in under two minutes -- so much more manuverable than a plane. i highly recommend it! We saw two sperm whales doing their thing. They go up to the water's surface for about six minutes and take a bunch of deep breaths, then head down underwater for 20 or 30 minutes having enough oxygen in their blood to sustain them. We saw a whale watching boat below us bobbing around on the waves and were glad we sprung for the heli ride! It was interesting to read about Kaikoura's whale hunting past and see how the town has now embraced eco-tourism as it's economic base. It's a thriving little town with about 4000 residents that supports five times that many tourists each day in the summer. And it's the first "green" town in the country which the residents proudly took on themselves, sorting their recycling and taking it to the waste center with no funding from the local government. All in all, a cool place.

Best experience: hmm.... hard to pick. We really liked the day walk around the peninsula and watching the seals ignore us. But the heli ride was awesome. most expensive 30 minutes of my life though.

Best meal: Black Rabbit pizza across from our hostel. A small little gourmet pizza place with unique combinations. I can't even remember which one we got but it was good!

Next stop: Christchurch

No word game this time.... we'll give you the answers to the last two next time...
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