A whale of a time in Kaikoura

When I was younger I sent off lots of competition entry forms from the back of wildlife magazines. One day, out of the blue, I was gobsmacked to actually receive a prize in the post; people do actually win those things, who knew! It was a copy of Mark Carwardine’s book On the Trail of the Whale. If I remember correctly, the opening chapter is about Mark’s experience as a first time visitor falling in love with Kaikoura, a magical sounding whale mecca in a far off land named New Zealand. One day, I daydreamed, I would visit that mystical place.

Indeed, Kaikoura was the first place I visited in New Zealand back in 2001, after landing in Christchurch. I couldn’t get there fast enough and spent hours sitting on top of perhaps the same hilly clifftop that Mark Carwardine had written about years before.

Ever since then Kaikoura has occupied rather a big space in my heart. So, to go back there, this time talking to its young ocean guardians about how to protect the sea, has made my heart feel full and happy.

I made the most of having a whole weekend of fun time in Kaikoura and spent as much time as possible with a wonderful variety of sea creatures; sperm whales, dusky dolphins, hector’s dolphins, blue penguins, albatross species and a plethora of other seabirds too.

Sperm whales are one of the fascinating year-round residents of Kaikoura’s coastline. They are the largest Odontocete (toothed) whale, reaching 15 – 20m in length, can weigh in at 40 – 60 tons and live up to 70 years.

They make dives of 40 to 60 minutes to around 1,000m deep in the nearby underwater canyon, but are capable of diving for over 2 hours to 3,000m deep. They have the largest brain of any animal on earth (around 7 times the size of a human brain) and are thought to be one of the loudest animals, having been recorded at 230 decibels. They amplify sounds waves, or clicks, using the spermaceti oil in their heads to locate and even stun or kill their prey. They are remarkable creatures.

Being in the presence of one of these majestic creatures when it surfaces between dives creates an awed silence as the Whalewatch boat slowly approaches, keeping a respectful distance. Only a small fraction of their body sits above the water; just enough to show their proportionally small dorsal fin and a slither of head so their blowhole has access to fresh air.

Here the blowhole is visible on the left and the dorsal fin on the right side of the photo. Other than that, it looks a bit like a floating log, doesn’t it?!

During their 7 or 8 minute surface interval, the oil in their heads cools and solidifies into a dense wax, which helps the whale dive down deep below the surface. Once they’ve replenished their oxygen store and are ready to make their dive, they make one brief dip below the surface before diving head down, arching their backs and eventually heading vertically downwards, tails up in the air and then propelling themselves down into the dark watery depths of the Kaikoura Canyon. They spend 80% of their lives in darkness of the depths of sea, so we really were lucky to see 3 of these leviathons on our trip.

When they disappear from sight, you’re left gazing at their ‘footprint’, the flat patch of water created by the mighty flick of their tail as they head dowards the canyon depths. And we’re all left grinning at one another; the lucky few to share this experience.

‘It’s like nothing else in the world exists when you’re watching those animals’ one lady said. ‘All your worldly problems melt away, none of that stuff matters and you’re just caught up in the moment, soaking up the wonder of nature’. Yup. That pretty much sums up how I feel about the ocean every time I’m in it.

Try it and sea…

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