KAIKŌURA is the most important holiday destination between Blenheim and Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island. The town sits just to the landward side ofa deep submarine trench, whose chilly uplifting waters nourish large populations of crayfish, the namesakes of Kaikōura, which means ‘eat crayfish’ in Māori.
The town is also just to the seaward side of two ranges of lofty coastal mountains shooting all the way up to the 2885 m or 9,465-foot Tapuae-o-Uenuku (‘footsteps of the rainbow god’): a very prominent and Himalayan-looking peak that’s easily visible from Wellington.
But there’s a lot more than just crayfish living in the waters off Kaikōura. Their cousins, the shrimp-like krill that feed the greatest whales, also thrive in these waters, which plunge rapidly to great depths just offshore, as quickly as the mountains rise onshore. These great, cold depths create upwellings that fertilise the sea and nourish the krill. This brings whales that feed on krill, sucking in entire shoals and then filtering out the water through a comb-like structure in their mouths made of a substance called baleen.
Another quite different kind of large whale that is often seen at Kaikōura is the sperm whale. Sperm whales can dive up to two thousand metres down or more than a mile, in fact: going down for about 45 minutes at a time and then catching their breath for about fifteen minutes on the surface.
Toothed and predatory in nature, sperm whales actively hunt the giant squid and the even larger colossal squid, the latter as long as the sperm whale at fifteen metres (50 feet) or so, that both dwell in the inky depths. Sperm whales are also believed to prey on the large but inoffensive megamouth shark, a filter feeder which dwells at a similar depth to the huge squid.
Such deep-water prey is sought by the sperm whale, because it needs to eat about a ton of food each day. On the surface the sperm whale is easily seen, in time for any surface creature big enough to be of interest as a meal to get out of its way. So, instead, the sperm whale dives into the sunless depths and seeks out its prey down there. A greater depth of water also offers a greater volume in which to find large prey, which are of course rarer than the small fish that dolphins chase on the surface.
That difference apart, the sperm whale is otherwise a lot like a giant dolphin. For instance, it uses a system of sonar clicks, very similar to that of dolphins, to first find and then stun the creatures it wishes to eat.
Kaikōura is one of the very few places where sperm whales can be seen close to land, as coastal waters are normally too shallow for their style of hunting.
Predators themselves, the giant and colossal squids are almost certainly the kernel of truth behind the tales of horrible sea-monsters that you find in every oceangoing culture from the English to the Māori. Including, in this connection, the tale of Kupe and Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, a struggle that did not take place all that far from Kaikōura after all.
In the words of the nineteenth century French novelist Victor Hugo,
“These animals are indeed phantoms as much as monsters. They are proved and yet improbable.”
If you go online, you can see all sorts of lurid images of sperm whales doing battle with the krakens of the deep. Images that draw their inspiration from actual injuries and scars borne by many sperm whales.
And yet, just as Hugo wrote of the “proved and yet improbable” nature of the largest squids, no such fight to the finish has yet been witnessed by humans even today. If anybody does eventually get photographic proof that these battles royal of the deep really do take place, it may well be obtained off Kaikōura.
The sperm whale is also the type of whale that features in Moby-Dick: the maddened bull of the seas which, after a day spent fighting tentacled monsters, takes no nonsense from puny human beings either.
You occasionally see photos of people swimming with whales. That’s not encouraged at Kaikōura, not only for reasons of sensitivity but also because sperm whales do bite, and also have a powerful sonar that they use to stun their prey even without getting close.
All these whales were, of course, hunted by humans from New Zealand’s shores at one time. But today, Kaikōura is a major whale-watching venue. We went for a ride in a plane to try and see some, but we didn’t see any whales on this flight, only dolphins (it’s a bit of a lottery).
The next day, I paid for another ride in a boat, encouraged by the fact that the boat operators offered an 80% refund if I still didn’t see any whales. But fortunately, I did see a couple in the end, and filmed one diving with its flukes in the air. I've got a scene of the whale diving in a video compilation about the local wildlife, further below. But here, for the moment, are stills.
As you can see in the photo from the whale-watching plane above – there are several operators by the way, this isn’t the only one – the town of Kaikōura is on a rocky peninsula that juts out into the sea. It’s a former island with plains to its west now joining it to the mainland, and curving beaches north and south.
There’s a lookout on the peninsula where you can look west to both beaches, the plains and the mountains.
One thing you can see from there is the oddly terraced nature of the beaches, the result of a 2016 earthquake that raised the whole area by several metres.
We stayed at two campgrounds, the Kaikōura Top 10 Holiday Park, which had all the facilities you can think of and is billed as Kaikōura’s only 5-star holiday accommodation, and the Kaikōura Peketa Beach Holiday Park, billed as Kaikōura’s only beachfront holiday camp. The Peketa camp was more basic and further from town but it was cheaper and, indeed, right on the beach.
My father also had a great fish chowder at the Why Not Café, in the middle of town.That’s another recommendation from experience.
A further thing to take in if you are based at Kaikōura, if the weather is good and if you are feeling fit and adventurous, is the relatively easy climb of Mount Fyffe (1602 metres or 5,256 feet). The summit of Mount Fyffe is only about ten kilometres inland from Kaikōura as the crow flies and there is a four-wheel-drive road all the way to the hut at approximately 1000 metres, though the gate is normally locked and you have to gain authorisation to use the road. There are also a number of shorter trails and hikes on the mountain.
Coastal walks in the area are excellent as well. The Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway is public, and there is also a two-day private walk called the Kaikōura Coast Track, which takes in normally inaccessible sections of coast and gullies on private farmland. The Kaikōura Coast Track starts out from an area called the Conway Flat, near the Conway River or Piri-tūtae-putaputa, some way south of the Kaikōura Peninsula. One day is spent up in the hills, and another along the coast.
I did the Kaikōura Coast Track track, run by local farming families, over a two-day period. The organisers weren’t very good at confirming receipt of my earlier payment and thought I hadn’t paid at first. But on the other hand, the families have done wonders for conservation and have transferred some of their land into the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust for conservation and reafforestation purposes. As a casual adult I paid NZ $220 plus $80 for breakfast and cut lunch for two days. I should have paid another $100 for two laid-on evening meals as well – don’tbe stingy like me!
Here is the website for the Kaikōura Coast Track, which includes all the details and an impressive photo gallery: kaikouratrack.co.nz
I also include some photos I took myself along the track and its approaches.
One thing that really impressed me were all the ravines filled with native bush near the coast.
And cloud forests further up the hills and inland.
If you are lucky enough to be in Kaikōura at the right time of year, as we were, you might even see an abundance of kekeno or New Zealand fur seals raising their little pups, which stumble about like adorable kittens, constantly mewing for their mothers.
These rookeries tend to be in secluded spots where people don’t go. There is a publicly advertised seal colony at the tip of the Kaikōura Peninsula, which you have to walk to, but at least it is known. On the other hand, we got this last photo, and some videos, entirely by accident. We were driving along an uninhabited stretch of coast near Kaikōura and stopped to take a photo of some rocks with seals on them, a common enough sight on remoter stretches of the New Zealand coast, when we were surprised to see the seals actually nesting under the road-embankment.
It’s great to see the population of these colonies coming back: as they, too, were nearly hunted to extinction back in the old days. Today’s visitor, not intent on harm, would of course be unwise to get close. For that would not only spook the babies but also incur the ire of the large, bear-like males that guard the colony.
There are also seabird rookeries, such as Otumatu Rock.
Here's the compilation video I mentioned before, which starts with a whale diving before going to the roadside seal colony, and finally the gulls at Otumatu Rock:
Altogether, the Kaikōura area really is a special and abounding place.
The Coastal Pacific railway excursion train runs through Kaikōura.The link is on this website: greatjourneysofnz.co.nz.
On the inland Kaikōura Road, you might also wish to visit the Mount Lyford Lodge and lakes: mtlyfordlodge.co.nz
And you can drive the Alpine Pacific Triangle Route, which includes the Inland Kaikōura Road and a trip further inland to the thermal baths of Hanmer Springs: newzealand.com/nz/feature/alpine-pacific-triangle.
For general information, visit the Kaikoura iSITE.
For what are perhaps the best views in the region, albeit necessitating the ascent of a serious coastal mountain, see this page on Manakau (2608 m / 7,653 ft) from ClimbNZ.
On the topic of climbing the considerably higher but more inland Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku, see Danny Strayer, 'Tapuae-o-Uenuku: The Scariest Hike I've Ever Done', 23 April 2019, on his website, astraylife.com.
If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.
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