Kaikōura: Eating crayfish and watching whales

January 25, 2021
Listen to the podcast


KAIKOURA is the most importantholiday destination on the east coast between Blenheim and Christchurch. Thetown sits on a small rocky peninsula that juts out into the sea.

Kaikōura sits just to the seaward side of two ranges oflofty coastal mountains shooting all the way up from the sea to the 2885 m or9,465-foot Tapuae-o-Uenuku (‘footsteps of the rainbow god’): a very prominentand Himalayan-looking peak that’s easily visible from Wellington.


Tapuae-o-Uenuku from the Clarence River side. Photo inNew Zealand Tramper by lewshaw, added 8 October 2012, CC-BY-SA 3.0 NZ.

But there’s a lot more than just crayfish living in thewaters off Kaikōura. Their cousins, the shrimp-like krill that feed thegreatest whales, also thrive in these waters which plunge rapidly to greatdepths 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 the whales that feed on them, and on the abundant shoaling fish aswell.

The other kind of large whale that is often seen at Kaikourais the sperm whale. Toothed and predatory in nature, sperm whales actively huntthe giant squid and the even larger colossal squid, itself as long as the spermwhale at fifteen metres or so, that dwell in the inky depths a thousand or sometres down.

These furtive prey are pursued because the sperm whale needsto eat about a ton of food a day. Hardly anything else on the surface offerssuch a prospect.

Kaikōura is one of the very few places where sperm whalescan be observed close to land, as coastal waters are normally too shallow forthem to hunt their preferred victims.

Predators themselves, the giant and colossal squids are almostcertainly the kernel of truth behind the tales of horrible sea-monsters thatyou 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 thatdid not take place all that far from Kaikōura after all.

Illustration from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, byJules Verne

In the words of the nineteenth century French novelistVictor Hugo,

“These animals are indeed phantoms as much asmonsters. They are proved and yet improbable.”

As for the sperm whale, it is a relative of dolphins andorcas. Like its relatives, the sperm whale has a powerful sonar, emitting aseries of clicks with which it finds its prey. But it can also ramp up theintensity of the sound waves to stun its prey, after which the helpless victimis eaten.

But this doesn’t necessarily subdue the largest prey. If yougo online, you can see all sorts of lurid images of sperm whales doing battlewith krakens of the deep. Images that draw their inspiration from actualinjuries and-scars borne by many sperm whales.

Display of sperm whale and giant squid, Museumof Natural History, New York. Photo by Mike Goren (2005), CC BY 2.0 via WikimediaCommons.

And yet, just as Hugo wrote of the “proved and yetimprobable” nature of the largest squids, no such fight to the finish has yetbeen witnessed by humans even today. If anybody does eventually get photographicproof that these battles royal of the deep really do take place, it may well beobtained 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 tentacledmonsters, takes no nonsense from puny human beings either.

Illustration from Moby-Dick

You occasionally see photos of people swimming with whales.That’s not encouraged at Kaikōura, not only for reasons of sensitivity but alsobecause with sperm whales you might end up on the menu yourself as a sort ofkebab, an appetiser before the deep-diving main course.

All these whales were, of course, hunted by humans from NewZealand’s shores at one time. But today, Kaikōura is a major whale-watchingvenue. We went for a ride in a plane to try and see some, but we didn’t see anywhales on this flight, only dolphins (it’s a bit of a lottery). The next day, Ipaid for another ride in a boat, encouraged by the fact that the boat operatorsoffered a refund if I still didn’t see any whales. But fortunately, I did see acouple in the end, and filmed one diving with its flukes in the air.

As you can see in the photo from the whale-watching planeabove – there are several operators by the way, this isn’t the only one – thetown of Kaikōura is on a rocky peninsula that juts out into the sea. It’s aformer island with plains to its west now joining it to the mainland, andcurving beaches north and south.

There’s a lookout on the peninsula where you can look westto both beaches, the plains and the mountains.

The Kaikōura Lookout, looking northward

One thing you can see is the oddly terraced nature of thebeaches, the result of a 2016 earthquake that raised the whole area by severalmetres.

Beach on the north side of Kaikōura (January 2021, a bit over four years since the Kaikōura earthquake)

Another thing to take in if you are based at Kaikōura, ifthe weather is good and if you are feeling fit and adventurous, is the relativelyeasy climb of Mount Fyffe (1602 metres or 5,256 feet). The summit of MountFyffe is only about ten kilometres inland from Kaikōura as the crow flies and thereis 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 theroad. There are also a number of shorter trails and hikes on the mountain.

Coastal walks in the area are excellent as well. TheKaikoura Peninsula Walkway is public, and there is also a two-day private walkcalled the Kaikōura Coast Track, which takes in normally inaccessible sectionsof coast and gullies on private farmland.

The Conway Flat Road, which leads to theKaikōura Coast Track

If you are lucky enough to be there at the right time ofyear, as we were, you might even see an abundance of New Zealand fur sealsraising their little pups, which stumble about like adorable kittens,constantly mewing for their mothers.

These rookeries tend to be in secluded spots where peopledon’t go. We got this last photo, and some videos I shot and put online,entirely by accident. We were driving along an uninhabited stretch of coastnear Kaikōura and stopped to take a photo of some rocks with seals on them, acommon enough sight on remoter stretches of the New Zealand coast, when we weresurprised to see the seals actually nesting under the road-embankment.

It’s great to see the population of these colonies comingback: as they, too, were nearly hunted to extinction back in the old days. Today’svisitor, not intent on harm, would of course be unwise to get close. For thatwould not only spook the babies but also incur the ire of the large, bear-likemales that guard the colony.

And finally, there are also crags on which seabirds roost,such as the Otumatu Rock.

Otumatu Rock

Altogether the Kaikōura area really is a special andabounding place.

The Coastal Pacificrailway excursion train runs through Kaikoura as well. The link is on


Mount Lyford with lake and lodge etc.



Resources as per Kaikoura and the Ranges …

iSITE centre,Tapuae%2Do%2DUenuku%2C%20or%20Mt.,the%20Aoraki%20Mount%20Cook%20region.


NZDF Photo




Subscribe to our mailing list to receive free giveaways!

Thanks for subscribing. You can expect to receive more information about Mary Jane, her top travel tips, free downloads of Mary Jane's award-winning books, and more, straight to your inbox!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again or contact us if you're still having trouble.

Share and subscribe

Share this post on Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to new posts with RSS.

Recent Blog Posts

February 13, 2021

Is Auckland Council making itself Redundant? The paradox of retrenchment in the face of growth

Continue reading
February 7, 2021

A Walk on the Wildside: New Zealand's Banks Track – near Christchurch, yet remote

Continue reading
February 5, 2021

Whenua Hou: Codfish Island and the few Kākāpō Left

Continue reading