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Kaikoura and the whales

rain 17 °C

It had been my intention, upon arrival in Kaikoura, to book a place on the Whale Watch boat for the next day. However, a guy at the desk said "You can go on one in 10 minutes if you like." So I did.

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The sea was extremely rough, like nothing I'd ever experienced before. The fairly large, very fast catamaran was constantly being thrown up into the air (literally, out of the water) by the 3 metre swell. I don't really get seasick, but the smell of other people throwing up all around nearly did it for me (but, fortunately, not quite). I'm probably painting a rather negative picture of the trip. It was, however, one of the best things I've done so far. Thankfully the sea calmed down once we got out to where the whales were.

I remember clearly my first glimpse of a whale. It looked like a large, dark log floating in the sea - until a jet of spray shot up into the air above it. Then, another whale came bobbing along beside it. The guide said that these male sperm whales are usually solitary creatures and so to see two together was pretty rare. Then, almost simultaneously, they both took one last, large gulp of air and dived down into the deep, flicking their tails up into the air as they went down.

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The reason why Kaikoura is such a good place to see whales is the deep oceanic trench just off the coast. About a kilometre from the shore, the continental shelf slopes steeply down to a depth of over 1000 metres. Warm and cool water mix here causing an upwards current rich in plankton and fish. This is why so many whales are found so near to the land - it's a great place to find food.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whale and feed mainly on giant squid. Small sharks are popular meals too. These whales are also among the most dangerous for humans. Apart from their ability to easily swallow a person whole, their sonar is also exceptionally powerful and loud; 180 decibels (louder than a jet aeroplane taking off). Once, a fisherman who got knocked into the sea was killed after being hit by this sonic wave - the extreme frequency ruptured all of his internal organs.

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In total we had seven good sightings, one time being the same whale we saw earlier - identifiable by a large white mark of scar tissue on its side. The whales can dive down 1000m, to near the sea bed, and they hold their breath for up to 45 minutes so, once the one you're watching has dived, it makes sense to go looking for another.

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The Whale Watch boat was very modern and high-tech. They use sonars to detect the whales' sonar and calls, then position the boat near to where they think the whale is - but not too near, although the animals don't seem to mind boats and people watching them. Apparently, when a whale goes quiet it is about to surface. Then, you scan the sea looking for a spout.

Kaikoura used to be a whaling station, before it became a place dedicated to the protection of the whales. However, sperm whales seemed to know who their enemies were and fought back, ganging up on the whalers' boats and trying to smash them. Good for the whales, I'd say! We need some more smashings up of those Japanese 'research' whale killers' boats in the Antarctic. And the Norwegians', and the Icelandic's. (The three countries named above are the only ones who officially condone the hunting of whales.)

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As well as whales, we saw seal and more albatross than I could count. (Videos should be on my YouTube area... if it hasn't worked, I'll try and sort it.) On the previous cruise they had seen orca, but they'd gone by the time we got there. Still, seven whales was over twice their average and the albatross were a bonus, so very successful. It was a special day.

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The last whale we saw decided to play games with us. The video is called 'Kaikoura 4'. Again, if it doesn't work, apologies - this technology is rather temperamental.

As I wrote in a previous entry, the weather was not great for me in Kaikoura - loads of rain and very low cloud obscured the (supposedly?!) spectacular coastal mountains. Fortunately though, the rain held off for the entire time I was on the Whale Watch cruise.

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The Kaikoura peninsula has a lovely walk which I did, accompanied by a Belgian girl from my hostel. It only rained for 15 minutes, which was also pretty fortunate.

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Along the way we saw many fur seals, only found in NZ. The seals have a favourite spot on the northern end of the peninsula and they haul themselves up onto land and sprawl out on their beds of seaweed.

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The track then climbs up to the top of the cliffs and offers some spectacular views down to the sea below.

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We hardly saw another soul the whole afternoon. Desolate, some people might call the landscape. I'd say, instead: untouched, wild, unspoilt, magnificent.
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All that could be seen or heard was the seabirds, wheeling and crying overhead, and the sea. The quiet peacefulness of the place was addictive. I think if I lived anywhere near, I'd come up and spend a lot of time here.

In the evening we returned to the hostel to find two crayfish lying on the kitchen counter next to a sign saying "Eat me". 'Kaikoura' means, in Maori, 'Eat Crayfish' and I was keen to try some - supposedly the best in the world. However, for $55 in a restaurant, they were a little out of my budget range. So, you can imagine my pleasant surprise upon learning that someone from the hostel had gone out fishing that day and caught too many so was offering free crayfish to anyone who wanted it. Not that I'm a crayfish connoisseur or anything, but they were so sweet, juicy and flavoursome that I'd be inclined to believe that Kaikoura crayfish are, indeed, the best in the world.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 16:51 Archived in New Zealand

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