Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Marine Wildlife Wonderland of Kaikoura (New Zealand)

Majestically set as the Southern Alps approach the bay-lined coastline, Kaikoura is world famous for its marine tours. Geologically freaky, the continental shelf plunges over 2000 metres deep only a few miles offshore creating the perfect feeding grounds for the Sperm Whale. These leviathans, measuring up to 18 metres and weighing in at up to 70 tonnes, dive for up to two hours into the inky depths (any semblance of light in seawater disappears at around 500 metres) to snaffle giant squid among their dietary luxuries.

Sadly on my visit, the rough conditions cancel any chance of seeing these charismatic giants, but a tour of the more coastal areas still offer a chance to see a variety of marine life.

The robust craft is six seats wide with viewing platforms all around and on the top deck. Within a few minutes of the journey starting, Hector Dolphins, the world’s smallest species of these playful sea creatures, twist and dive in small groups. Entering the bay in which Kaikoura is situated, New Zealand Fur Seals appear to relish the chilly conditions basking on favourite rocks oblivious to the brisk spring winds.

A little further out to sea, acrobatic Dusky Dolphins leap clear of the water or thrash their tail in a manoeuvre unexplained by science. Petrels shoot the gusty winds while albatrosses gracefully soar the breezes.

Perfectly suited to flying long distances, the three-part wings stretch metres wide while their wings can lock into their shoulders, expending no energy to soar the wind currents above the ocean surface for hours or days on end. The two largest albatross species, the similar Royal and Wandering Albatrosses both appear around Kaikoura, spending their time just off the coastline at sea. Albatrosses appear equally regal swimming on the surface, ready to launch in an ungainly takeoff while unfurling their huge wings.

Back on land, a short walk from the town centre towards the peninsula, fur seals pull themselves onto the rocks only metres from the end of the road. Closely related to sealions, their small ears are visible (most seals have hidden ears) from only a few metres and their mobility is highlighted by their capacity to walk on all four flippers. One path leads over the lush hills offering an overview of the rocky shoreline and relaxing seals while the other navigates the coastline itself presenting seals at eye level.

A few kilometres north of town, Ohau Point features a mating colony where seal bull males compete for the chance to reproduce, mothers guard their cubs while trying to bask on their favourite rock. Baby pups either sleep in a convenient crevice in a rock or play joyously with their new mates in a small rockpool diving and jumping as the waves wash through the pools. Hundreds of seals line the shoreline, waves pounding the harsh coastline of volcanic black sands and jagged rocks.

Kaikoura is a marine wonderland with opportunities to view at close quarters remarkable creatures as the albatross, Sperm Whale, dolphins and seals combining a boat journey and a lively walk at any time of the year. While all this wildlife are permanently resident, migratory whales from Antarctica also settle in these waters during the New Zealand winter months to calf, before returning south at the onset of spring.

I travelled as a guest of Qantas Airways on The Great Crusade, a promotion highlighting the best of New Zealand while following the endeavours of the Qantas Wallabies to win the Rugby World Cup. The journey can be followed via Twitter hashtag #greatcrusade.


Donna Hull said...

I missed this sea life excursion on my visit to New Zealand. I'd love to go back and do this. Great photos, Mark!

Barbara Weibel said...

When I traveled to New Zealand in 2007 I was truly amazed by the proliferation of wildlife. Such a beautiful country! I hope I can return someday.

Mark H said...

@donna: Kaikoura is a real centre for marine life. It was a shame that the Sperm Whales weren't available due to the rough seas on the day I was there.

@barbara: I think NZ does a great job with their wildlife and natural areas in general. A lesson to much of the world.

PWT Health Tips said...

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