Whale Watching at Kaikoura

Trip Start Jan 15, 2009
Trip End Mar 07, 2009

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Sunday, March 1, 2009

The tour bus was there to pick me up at the Heritage at 7:30 am.  The tour company is called Canterbury Leisure Tours.  The driver/guide warned us that the weather was "marginal" today for the whale watching cruise, but all of us on the tour bus were ready to give it a try, so we set out for the city of Kaikura.  We soon were out of the city limits of Christchurch and traveling along fields of grazing sheep.  Many of the fields were separated from each other by hedges like they have in Great Britain in rural areas.  After a couple of hours of pastoral scenery, we stopped at a little town called Cheviot for tea and a "comfort" stop as the guide put it.  We  had tea at a little café called the Cheviot Tea Room.  Which sounds fancier than it is.  It is just a little roadside café-nothing too gourmet. 

After our "comfort stop", we continued on towards Kaikoura.  For a while, we were still passing through rolling hills with sheep grazing, but gradually we started approaching the Coast.  Soon, we were driving along the rocky coastline next to ocean.  We could see that there were some pretty rough waves out there.  We stopped at a parking area next to a cliff and got out to take a look at some New Zealand Fur Seals that were resting on the rocks below.  These were the same species I had seen at Admiral's Arch on Kangaroo Island.

As we got back into the bus, it began to rain lightly.  We soon arrived in the little city of Kaikoura and pulled into the Whale Watch parking lot.  We mingled in the visitor's center for a while, and I (like most of the others) purchased an anti-sea sickness pill that they were selling at the gift shop counter.  Although I have been in some pretty heavy seas on research vessels before and not gotten sea sick, I figured it wouldn't hurt to take one just in case.  We received a short briefing from a Whale Watch hostess and were told that the cruise was going to happen, but the seas were pretty rough.   She said that the whales were in a cove that was somewhat protected from the heavy waves, so they felt like it was safe for us to venture over there to look at the whales.

We boarded a bus and were transferred to the Whale Watch boat about 2 km away. We piled out of the boat and boarded the whale watching vessel at the pier.  Soon, we were motoring out of the inlet.  The seas were pretty rough.  There were 6-8 foot wave, so I was glad I took the anti-sea sickness pill.  The naturalist on board gave us a short lecture about sperm whales with some really cool computer graphics to accompany the talk.  She said that there is a permanent population of sperm whales that feed off the coast of Kaikoura in a canyon that cuts through the continental shelf here.  The canyon is appropriately called the Kaikoura Canyon and it is 2 km deep.  It's shape and the prevailing winds result in a phenomenon called coastal upwelling, where nutrients are brought bubbling up from deep sea currents.  The abundance of nutrients results in very high productivity in these waters.  Plankton grows and attracts small fish.  The fish attract squids and the squids attract sperm whales.  Most of the sperm whales here are juvenile males between the ages of 15 and 30 years.  They come here to feed in bachelor groups and will eventually leave for waters elsewhere to find mates.  Sperm whales are the largest toothed predator on the planet.  They can grow to lengths of 18 meters and weigh up to 35-40 metric tons.  Their main food are squids.  Here in Kaikoura Canyon, they eat a variety of squids including the Giant Squid (Archeteuthis dux) and Collosal Squid.  They can dive to depths of 1500 meters in search of their prey and stay down for up to 45 minutes at a time.  When they surface, they only need a recover  period of about 15 minutes and they are ready to dive again.  A sperm whale needs between 800 and 1000 kg of squid per day to survive.

Since these sperm whales are only on the surface for such a short time, it makes locating them difficult for the whale watching boats.  This boat uses several strategies to find the whales.  First, they use reports from other boats and planes via radio and GPS positions.  Secondly, they use a spotter named Mary who stands on the upper deck and looks for the spouts of the whales who have surfaced.  Lastly, they also use a hydrophone to listen to their sonar and help pinpoint the area where they might be about to surface. 
Mary soon found a sperm whale and the boat captain turned the vessel in that direction and soon she had brought the boat alongside of the whale which had just surfaced.  We all piled out of the heated cabin and onto the decks of the boat.  Undeterred by the sea spray and the heaving of the deck in the rough seas, we all watched in amazement as the whale swam along the surface.  I managed to brace myself against a railing and take a video clip and a few still photos.  Keep in mind that whales are like icebergs-the greatest percentage is submerged!  The photos show less than 10% of the body of this large animal, which is about the size of the bus I had traveled here on.  After about 4 or 5 minutes, someone yelled "He's about to dive" and the whale ducked it's head under water and showed us his tail flukes before he dove into the depths of Kaikoura Canyon.  I pointed the camera  and fired off a shot with my fingers crossed.  In the heavy seas I was not sure if I had gotten the tail flukes framed in my viewfinder properly or not.  However, when we returned to the comfort of the heated cabin, I pulled up the photo and was pleased to see that I had caught a good photo of the tail flukes of this juvenile sperm whale.

Mary and the captain went back to looking for sperm whales.  They got out the hydrophone and appeared to be on the trail of one when the latest weather forecast came in over the radio.  The wind was picking up and the waves were going to higher and the rain heavier.  The Captain made the decision to abandon any further whale watching and return us to port for safety reasons.  So, we headed back to Kaikoura .  The waves got higher even as we headed towards shore.  Soon the wind had freshened and the waves were in the 10-12 foot range.  It was pouring rain and it was difficult to see very far through the weather.  Despite the poor conditions, the Captain brought us safely back to the inlet and we docked at the pier in the protected waters there.  They announced that because the whale watching cruise had to be cut short, that they would be giving us a 50% refund.  I was discouraged that we had to return to port early, but I was excited that we had gotten to see a wild sperm whale.  It was worth the rough seas to observe this amazing animal in its natural environment.

The bus transported us back to the Whale Watch Center where we ate lunch.  My lunch, and that of two others was included in the tour price, but the others apparently had to pay for their lunch.  I guess we booked through different companies.  Anyway, I had a nice lunch with two women from Great Britain.  They were a mother and daughter combination who were from Manchester.  The daughter is a travel agent and she had won a round the world trip in a sales competition at her travel agency.  We had a nice conversation over lunch and I had a wonderful slice of carrot cake for dessert.

Soon, it was time to board the bus again and we left Kaikura at about 2:30 pm for our next stop-a winery.  Being a non-drinker, I was not interested in the wine tasting.  However, I thought it might be interesting from a microbiological perspective to see how the wine is made.  Unfortunately, this visit was just for wine tasting and did not include a tour of the winery.  So, I milled around the gift shop and picked out a few post cards to purchase while the others were sampling the 9 different wines.  When they were finished, we climbed back on the bus and began our trip back through the grazing lands towards Christchurch.  We arrived back at the Heritage Hotel at about 5:45 or 6:00 pm.

It was still raining, so I purchased a small, inexpensive travel umbrella at a tourist shop and went for a walk around Christchurch while it was still light.  The area around the hotel included a square with a Cathedral, lots of shops and many restaurants serving Asian cuisine.  I wasn't in the mood for Asian food tonight, but I finally found a seafood place called The Palazzo.  I ordered the seafood marinara.  It was pretty good, but the marinara sauce was quite thin and the service was quite poor.

When I returned to the hotel, I did some laundry for a little while and then I went to bed early.  Tomorrow I am flying over to Queenstown to take a scenic flight over Milford Sound.
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