We had a gorgeous, but long (>6 hour), drive from the Abel Tasman area to Kaikoura, through lovely orchards, horse country and farms at first, then up and over the middle spine of the country, with passes, high valleys and some very sparsely populated areas. The November 2016 earthquakes (see below) resulted in many rockslides over coastal Highway 1, which is still closed between Blenheim and Kaikoura. This changed our originally planned (shorter) route.

The north central part of the South Island; high valleys separating range after range of mountains and hills.

A pic of Kaikoura in the early spring – before the November 14, 2016 earthquake. The earthquake measured 7.8 on the Richter Scale. The epicenter was about 35 miles south-west of Kaikoura. Kaikoura – ‘meal of crayfish’ (kai – food/meal, kōura – crayfish). The crayfish industry still plays a role in the economy of the region, and crayfish (southern or spiny rock lobster) is on the menu of almost every restaurant. 

About 3,800 earthquakes were registered in this one-week period in 2016; over 8,000 within 3 weeks.

Several buildings remained closed, but as many places were open for business as possible. We were glad we kept Kaikoura on our itinerary so we could add our small drop to the bucket of tourist dollars, so important to the town’s economy.

The northeasterly winds really whips  up the sea.

Kaikoura is a popular tourist destination, mainly for whale watching (the sperm whale watching is perhaps the best and most developed in the world) and swimming with or near dolphins – wild dolphins, not those kept in a lagoon. Mark even learned to speak ‘dolphin’ (video).

We went on a dolphin excursion with Dolphin Encounter. This company, owned by lifelong Kaikoura locals, seems to focus on providing an ‘unstaged’ nature-based experience, with relatively limited impact on the environment and the marine mammals. We donned wetsuits and got dropped into 60-degree water among a pod of dusky dolphins about 100-150 strong. We got in the water 5 times; one session the dolphins stayed and played with us about 10 minutes. 

They were curious and many twirled around us. Mark made ‘dolphin’ noises and Shauna twirled and tried to swim like a dolphin to attract them to play with us. We have a sneaky suspicion that the guides just wanted to watch us carry out these instructions so they could have a laugh from the boat deck.

They jumped and flipped and played like teenagers….. the end-over-end flips were our favorite.

They also liked to cruise along just in front of the bow of our boat.

We saw some Royal Albatrosses from the boat, but none were close enough to get a decent pic. With wingspans of up to 10 feet, they are among the largest seabirds in the world. Renowned ocean wanderers, they travel vast distances from their breeding grounds to feed – as much as 100,000 miles a year.

Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen year-round and close to shore. Once young male sperms whales are old enough to sustain themselves, they are kicked out of the pod. These males, until they are teenagers (our guide said until about 15 years of age or so) congregate here because the 2-mile deep Kaikoura Canyon runs right up against the coast creating a rare system of sea currents that sustain an incredibly rich marine food chain. Sperm whales are at the top of this food chain and the abundance of fish ensures they make the waters of Kaikoura their home.

We wanted to make sure that we saw some sperm whales, so we booked a special kind of “boat”.

Even from a helicopter, the best way to find a sperm whale is to look for the spray. Contrary to popular belief, sperm whales are named after the spermaceti oil (wax) that they produce in the spermaceti organ located in their head. It is because of this oil that man hunted the sperm whales, going after the prized spermaceti oil that was used to make smokeless candles during the 19th century.

The sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales (most whales are baleen; baleen whales split from toothed whales about 34 million years ago). They only have teeth on their lower jaw. They can live up to 60 years. Mature males average 50 ft. in length but some may reach 65 ft., with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length. Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal – up to 9kgs in weight. 

Whales don’t need to flush. (Mark wrote this… boys and their potty humor…)

Sperm whales dive deep to feed – up to 7,500 feet deep. The stay down for an hour or so and then return to the surface (for 10 minutes or so) to breathe and reoxygenate their blood. When they get ready to dive, sperm whales get sort of a running start. They arch their body to start getting some momentum.

Then, as they move their tail, they get more momentum.

They plunge their head down…..

…..follow through with their bodies….

….and continue with an almost vertical plunge…..

….until there is only tail left…..

….and the tip disappears.

A pic of the Kaikoura peninsula from the air, returning from our whale excursion. We’ll get the view from the opposite direction when we climb the mountain behind that afternoon.

We decided to go on a little hike…. Mount Fyffe.

……here we go. Looks pretty easy from here. Mark thinks Shauna told him that it was 1,400 feet elevation gain.

Looks a bit more difficult from here. This is when Mark figured out that Shauna said 1,400 meters elevation gain. About 4,600 feet. In one afternoon.

A view of the mountains on the inland side.

A view of Kaikoura from 1,500 feet elevation.

A view of Kaikoura from 3.000 feet elevation.

And finally, a view of Kaikoura from the peak, over 5,200 feet elevation. Where’s the elevator down?!