Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sperm Whales (Kaikoura, New Zealand)

Last October, I was in the whale-watching capital of Kaikoura as part of The Great Crusade (article here). Bad weather limited any sea ventures to only a few hundred metres from the coastline, ruling out sightings of the sperm whale but offering the chance to see various dolphins and seabirds. Having a chance to return to Kaikoura a few months later, sunshine and a sparkling peaceful ocean means the whale watch tours are running this time.

Beautifully perched on a bay with the sharply rising Southern Alps as a backdrop, Kaikoura sits only a few kilometres from the continental shelf which plunges to ocean depths of over two kilometres (called the Hikurangi Trench). This creates a feeding paradise for Sperm Whales, ocean leviathans measuring around 18 metres, the same size as our vessel, but at 60 to 70 tonnes, several times the boat’s mass. At the apex of the food chain, the sperm whale boasts a position as the world’s largest toothed whale and the animal with the largest brain mass.

Albatross, circle the waters soaring majestically and effortlessly with their giant wingspan. With a special technique to lock their outstretched wings, albatross glide without expending energy allowing them to spend years at sea and to skilfully fly the ocean updrafts tirelessly.

With spotter planes and clever gadgetry, the boats keep an accurate monitor for the sperm whale’s feeding grounds. Boarding Aoraki or Cloud Piercer (the Maori name for New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook), the boat buzzes towards the sperm whales, past flocks of albatross, gannets and petrels towards the edge of the continental shelf. As these whales dive to depths of over half a kilometre to feed on their favoured giant squid, beyond the point that light penetrates, once they dive they can be away for an hour or more. The boats keep track of the dive times of the whales being aware of when they are likely to surface.

Bobbing about on the glistening cobalt blue ocean surface for several minutes like a fallen log (with its huge block-shaped head, the front third to half of the whale stays visible), the sperm whale feverishly inhales and exhales shooting plumes of water droplets into the air through its unusual S-shaped blowhole. One graceful move and a flick of the tail and the sperm whale disappears on its next feeding dive for another hour or so.

Each tail fluke is like a human fingerprint, uniquely identifying the whale. As residents of the area (unlike other species of whales, these sperm whales do not migrate to Kaikoura seasonally but live here the entire year), each sperm whale has been named. Our first sighting is Tutu possibly due to its elegant sleek dive.

Heading towards the coastline, Hector’s Dolphins, the world’s smallest and rarest of this favourite marine mammal, prance in the aquamarine shallows racing alongside and under the boat. Small groups dive playfully and athletically, their mesmerising antics and agility difficult to photograph but a treat to watch.

Other wildlife experiences are on offer including a chance to swim with dolphins or New Zealand fur seals, view albatross and kayak the picturesque waters.

The Kaikoura weather is problematic and trips on occasions don’t leave for several days, but the Whale Watch folks are confident of seeing whales offering an 80 percent refund if unsuccessful. A chance to spend some precious times with the giant Sperm Whales along with the antics of the dolphins and the dazzling flight skills of seabirds, makes Kaikoura a wonderful wildlife experience.


Barbara Weibel said...

Beautiful wildlife captures, Mark.

Mark H said...

@barbara: Thank you. Perfect weather day which I think is a bit unusual in Kaikoura so kind of fortunate.

reviewcatch said...

it's a great list - very interesting post. thank you.

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