Kaikoura, New Zealand
Perched spectacularly between the mountains and the sea, the small town of Kaikoura, New Zealand offers incredible opportunities for marine wildlife spotting.
Kaikoura is on the South Island of New Zealand, around 180 km north of Christchurch, on the island’s east coast. It is located at the foot of the (often snow-capped) Seaward Kaikoura Range, and looks over the Pacific Ocean.
In Maori legend, the extraordinary coastline of the area around Kaikoura is thanks to a young deity called Marokura. During the creation of the land, Marokura was given the task of finishing the area off. He created the Kaikoura Peninsula and a second smaller peninsula (Haumuri Bluff), and then created the huge trough in the sea, where cold water from the south meets warm water from the north. Praising Marokura’s work, the god Tuterakiwhanoa said the place would be a gift to all who saw it. Even today, some Maori refer to the area as Te Koha O Marokura (the Gift of Marokura).
The first European settlers came to the area in the 1840s, mostly whalers. Soon after, farmers reached the area, and a permanent settlement emerged. Kaikoura became a tourist draw in the 1980s, but the town retails a laid-back vibe. Tragically, in November 2016, the town was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, destroying a number of transport links. Kaikoura has since rebuilt and is opening up for visitors.
Travellers with an interest in history will enjoy the Kaikoura Museum, which tells the story of the town and its history in an interactive contemporary building designed to resemble a crayfishing pot. Fyffe House – the last remaining part of the Waiopuka whaling station – is the oldest building in Kaikoura. Built on whalebone foundations in 1844, the two story cottage is now a museum exploring the lives of early British settlers.
However, the highlight of Kaikoura is the easy access that the town offers to a range of spectacular wildlife. Marine animals are particularly abundant here thanks to ocean-current and continental-shelf conditions. The Kaikoura Peninsula juts out around four kilometres from the shore, where it hits the deep underwater canyon known as the Hikurangi Trench at a point unusually close to the shore. The intersection between the two brings nutrients up from the floor of the trench, attracting an array of marine life – including dolphins, whales, and seals – to the area.
Those scarred by previous attempts at whale watching need not worry here – visitors have a 95% chance of spotting giant sperm whales here, as well as orcas and humpback whales. Whale-watching cruises head out into the sea, while you also have the option of viewing from a helicopter on a scenic flight. Dolphin cruises – some offering the opportunity to swim with the dolphins – are also abundant. It is also possible to encounter marine life on a kayaking trip into the ocean.
If a cruise isn’t for you, head to the seal colony on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. Between May and October, you’re guaranteed to see New Zealand fur seals sunbathing on the rocks. The gentle 11-km track is suitable for all fitness levels, and takes around three hours, but if you don’t have time for the full walk, the seals can be seen on shorter stretches.
Bird lovers will also find much to enjoy on a trip to Kaikoura. The town is home to over twelve species of albatross as well as other birds including shearwaters, petrels, gannets, and terns, many of which can be seen on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walk. Little blue penguins can also be seen in the sea around Kaikoura.
Kaikoura has been a foodie hub since before colonisation – the town’s name translates as kai (food), koura (crayfish), the choice of a Maori explorer who was particularly impressed with the crayfish he found nearby. Today, Kaikoura’s chefs continue to serve up seafood – freshly caught from the ocean – particularly crayfish, while organic produce from the surrounding farmlands can be bought at the Kaikoura Farmer’s Market – along with home-baked goods, artisan products, and local crafts.