For my last day on the South Island, I headed to the East Coast town of Kaikoura, known for it’s whale watching. Due to my desire to visit Abel Tasman National Park on the island’s northeast side the day before, I’d had a long drive to connect the two points.
I left my hotel in Havelock around 6 A.M. I had my whale watching cruise scheduled for 10:00 AM, and the drive was supposed to take about two hours.
Just south of Havelock, I passed through the town of Blenheim. The area around Blenheim is the heart of New Zealand’s famous Marlborough Wine Region. I was passing through in the dark of the early morning, but knew a further exploration of this area is a must on a future trip. I made it out to the Pacific coast shortly after sunrise to find dark storm clouds hovering just offshore. I’d read on the day’s forecast that showers were a possibility, but I wasn’t letting that scare me off, I had one day to get this cruise in.
I stopped at the Ohau Point Seal Colony, north of Kaikoura. I had been told about this specific colony by a girl I’d met on my cruise of Doubtful Sound 10 days earlier. The reason she’d been so taken by this particular colony was the young seals who spent time frolicking in the rock pools which filled with water during high tide.
Of the three seal colonies I visited, It was soon my favorite. I was really glad for this suggestion, as the many adorable videos of the young seals playing attest.
I was shocked at how beautiful the area the mountains surrounding Kaikoura were. I knew going in to the trip, due to the way I had planned my route (South from Christchurch and then northward up the Island’s West Coast), that if I did visit the area, it would be a quick trip like this just to do the whale watching excursion.
My first stop was to check in at Whale Watch Kaikoura, where I was informed that, due to rough conditions caused by storms further out at sea, my departure time of 10AM wasn’t going to happen. The nice ladies at the desk said they were hoping to still get out, but in the end it was the capitan’s call and it didn’t look good. They said I could get a refund if I didn’t want to wait, but I told them I was going to wait it out and hope for the best.
The frustrating part was that it was a nice, bright sunny day as I walked around killing time in the cute little downtown area of Kaikoura, and the shore near Whale Watch’s office didn’t seem rough at all as the surf gently lapped ashore. I could see the mountains northwest of town were getting some snow near their peaks, but it also didn’t look as if that system was going to effect us.
Upon returning to Whale Watch, I was told that the boat would be heading out after all. They were warning people who had health problems or were prone to motion sickness that they might be better of canceling due to the rough seas. I’ve been on some pretty rough boat trips, so not going never occurred to me. They showed us a brief video, then had the whole group board a bus to take the 10 minute drive to the harbor. As we boarded, the crew asked that the rear of the boat be saved for those especially prone to seasickness and that people who this wasn’t a problem for should sit near the front. Being confident I could handle it, I picked a seat right in the front row.
On the trip out, we were given a brief informative lecture on the types a whales we might get to see and how best to spot them. They also explained how a deep water trench located right offshore made this a popular area for sighting whales. In the rest of the world, most deep water trenches are located further out to see making them less accessible by day trips.
It sure was a beautiful day as we left the relative calm of the sheltered harbor and headed for the open sea. I wondered why so many stern warnings had been handed out before we left.
Then we found out why. The captain warned us of rough seas upcoming, the young man giving us our information lecture sat quickly, buckled himself in, and made sure everyone knew where their seasickness bags were located. I remember even chuckling a little to myself, then the rough seas showed up. For the next 20 minutes, the boat would seemingly ride up a wave and then just as quick be dropped straight down. The best feeling I can liken it to was the drop you feel when a roller coaster goes quickly downhill. I felt like my body was being dropped straight down, and then my stomach was being allowed to follow. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes and half of the passengers had used their barf bags. I sat straight back in my seat positive I was going to need one as well. I remember the old axiom of picking a fixed point and staring at during times of rough sea, so I used the tips of the mountain peaks a few miles away onshore. This worked pretty well except for the moments when the boat rocked so bad that the peaks weren’t visible through the windows of the boat.
Whale Watch Kaikoura has tremendous success on their excursions, and the use a number of different methods to aid in first sighting the whales, then getting close enough to view them safely. They rely of the historical data on the pattens of certain types of whales, as well as reports from other boats and the many helicopter flights that are overhead as well. As with all nature-related tourist excursions in New Zealand, the make taking care of the environment their number one priority.
We had a number of close call sightings of the giant Sperm Whales in the first half an hour. We kept getting unlucky as we’d spot them in the distance, hurry to get closer, only to see them dive as we approached. I’d come on the trip hoping for one of those signature photographs of a sperm whale tail fluke as the creature dove toward deeper water. I did get a picture of the third whale’s tail fluke, just not a pronounced as I had hoped. The rocky conditions at sea made it hard to get many good pictures, so I just kept shooting and hoping some of the images would turn out.
At each sighting, the number of people heading out on deck to look for the whales was decreasing. More and more people were choosing to come out for a quick look or just stay in their seats to ride out the motion sickness until we could return to shore. I’d gotten some good pictures of the whales as the grazed the surface of the water, and I’d even gotten some good images of them blowing water out of their blowholes. I was starting to accept that I wasn’t going to get that signature shot, and I was fine with that- it had still be exhilarating to be this close to the ancient and peaceful creatures.
Finally, the last whale obliged the group and I was able to capture the photo I had hoped to get. I was shooting in burst mode, and almost as soon as the whale had dove, a large wave jolted the boat. I didn’t even bother to check my viewfinder until I returned to my seat. It goes with out saying that I felt a long string of goosebumps ripple down my back as I saw the shot.
And that was really it for the cruise. I’d focused so hard on not throwing up on the way out, and had experienced such an adrenaline rush at each sighting, that, despite the tossing and turning of the boat, I was actually able to nod of for a bit on the way back. I also spoke with a number of my fellow passengers (both on the boat and on the bus ride back) and it seemed pretty unanimous that everyone, even those who had gotten seasick, felt that Whale Watch Kaikoura had done an exceptional job, in spite of difficult conditions. Everyone, including myself, had high praise for the captain (a real pro) and the crew and staff. Whale watch Kaikoura has one of the top reputations of any tourist based activity I visited or read about, and I can see why.
After being dropped off by the buses back at Whale Watch Kaikoura’s main building, I need a short walk on the beach to help me stop the swaying I still felt from the boat ride. I took some pictures of Kaikoura’s gorgeous surroundings, so glad that I had made the long journey to get here.
I headed back north on Highway 1 toward Picton. I had about a 2.5-3 hours drive and I wanted to make it in to Picton before sunset, but i had enough time to stop at an iconic Highway 1 stop, Nin’s Bin. This small caravan has been serving some of Kaikoura’s famous crayfish for many years.
Crayfish, which look (and taste) much like lobster, is a signature dish in the South Island, but especially around Kaikoura. I like seafood for the most part, but have never been a huge fan of lobster. Nonetheless, I stopped and ordered a reasonably sized one, and paid a few extra dollars so I could have it heated and served with lemon and garlic butter.
I ended up eating half there, and I had the other half wrapped to I could enjoy it later by cooking it on the burner in the campervan. It was really quite delicious. I didn’t write many blog posts while in New Zealand about something I’d done on the day I did it, but this was one I had to share.
I arrived in Picton just as the sun was setting. Picton is home to the two ferries that take people and vehicles between the North & South Islands. I had my ferry book for the next morning.
I was able to take a drive to one one of the many scenic viewpoints that overlook the sound. While waiting for the final bit of light to drain from the sky, I was able to see one of the Interislander ferries as it sailed into port. It was at that moment that I was hit with two wildly conflicting emotions. I was sad that my time on the South Island had come to an end. I allowed myself a moment of reflection over all the incredible things I’d seen in the past eighteen days, before becoming frightened that the magnitude of the experience would break my brain, so I moved on to the second dominant emotion. That emotion was excitement- the North Island from all I’d heard would be a different adventure, different but exciting.