There was a time, not so long ago in the grand scale of things, when the whale-watching industry in New Zealand did most of its observation of whales over the sights of cannons firing explosive harpoons.
And one of the centres of this gory trade was Kaikōura, where a convergence of warm oceanic currents and the proximity of the edge of the continental shelf create freakishly fertile oceanic conditions.The local profusion of the type of greebly that skulks at the bottom of the food chain makes this bit of coast a kind of smorgasbord for marine life, including the largest marine creatures of all, the great whales.
Dozens of whale species are represented in these waters: from the little Hector’s dolphin – the smallest cetacean in the world and one of the rarest – to humpback and right whales, whose migratory patterns once put them within easy reach of Kaikōura’s shore whaling station and now bring them about as close to whale-watching tourists as they can get without actually hitting the beach.
The whale-and-dolphin-watching industry in Kaikōura is a flagship of the shift from the kind of ‘extraction’ activity that once drove our economy – mining, forestry, factory whaling – to ‘attraction’ activities, where the tourism dollar is key.
And tourists flock here. They mill around the booking offices in the pleasant little town of Kaikōura just about as excitedly as a pod of dolphins about a school of pilchards. For very few places in the world can offer encounters with the giants of the deep as intimate and awe-inspiring as those available here.
Get up close and personal with Kaikoura's sperm whales and capture the perfect tail shot at @whalewatchkaikoura. Did you know that lying hidden just offshore, the 2km deep Kaikoura Canyon is one of the world's great undersea wonders. Two strong sea currents converge in this enormous trench and draw vast quantities of plant and animal nutrients to the surface in a great upwelling. 📸 haley_baxter
You can watch them from the air, on whale-and-dolphin-spotting scenic flights by helicopter of fixed-wing aircraft. You can watch them from the shore, as they cruise in the deep water only a hundred metres off the rocky beach. You can watch them from spitting distance from a chartered launch. Depending on weather and sea conditions and the mood of the relevant marine mammal species, you can even swim with dolphins, whales and seals here – the ultimate experience, unless you count Jonah’s.
And speaking of eating, Kaikōura town and district features a profusion of top-class cafés and restaurants where – as you would expect in an area named for an ancient Māori navigator’s seafood mixed grill – the pièce de résistance is the bounty of the sea.
Let’s face it. There’s something fishy about the whole place – in the nicest possible way.