Kaikoura’s a cute little town located on a gorgeous stretch of coastline an hour north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island.
It offers lovely scenery, a laid back atmosphere, and famous seafood (crayfish in particular), but the main draw is the daily whale watching boat tours in the bay.
Kaikoura is blessed with the year-round presence of sperm whales which come to hunt in the abundant waters of a deep submarine canyon just offshore, while there are also seasonal visits from migrating whales of other species including humpbacks and blue whales (if you’re lucky). Dolphins are also a common sight, and on the day I went whale watching we saw a huge pod of dusky dolphins somersaulting around the boat in addition to the half-dozen sperm whales we’d sighted. I got lucky as that was a particularly successful outing, but whale sightings are so common that you’re offered an 80% refund if your trip strikes out; 95% are successful.
The local Ngati-Kuri Maori people used to hunt the whales in these waters (as did the Europeans who came and established whaling stations in the area); now they own & run the whale-watching operation, adhering to strict guidelines regarding how many boats go out at any given time and how close they get to the whales. This ensures the whales aren’t disturbed, and the historical & cultural information shared by the onboard guides is fascinating. Kaikoura really is a fine example of how coastal whaling towns can transition to profiting from whale tourism instead of whale hunting – take note Japan (for further reading on that matter see this article by my friend Sean (from Tohoku tsunami volunteering days) contrasting the fortunes of Kaikoura with the Japanese whaling town Taiji (made infamous by the documentary The Cove) and offering constructive suggestions for Taiji’s future, an article for which he was doxxed and threatened by Japan’s batshit crazy far right nationalists)
Sperm whales dive for extended periods to great depths, hunting by echolocation in the pitch darkness. The crew use sensors to track the whales’ echolocation clicks to be positioned nearby when the whales surface for air. They usually hunt solo, so you see the whale surface and spend a few minutes floating at the surface to breathe, before humping its back and raising its tail to dive. This is when you can get the classic shot like the one above. Sperm whales don’t tend to be so playful and usually just ignore the boats (though they used to defend themselves fiercely against whalers – the whale in Moby Dick was a sperm whale), so don’t expect to see them jumping around for the cameras the way e.g. humpback whales sometimes do. Still very cool to see.
The boat may look crowded, but actually there’s plenty of space on board for everyone to get a good vantage point.
Due to the restricted daily number of tickets it’s a good idea to book in advance once you’re sure of your dates, which you can do here. It’s also easy enough to book your boat trip after arriving in town, either through your hostel/hotel or by going direct to Whale Watch Kaikoura, though you may have to wait until a later slot if they’re booked up.
Whale watching isn’t the only game in town though, so if you do end up having to wait you can use the time for a whole bunch of other activities like dolphin swimming or seal kayaking (I didn’t do any others but heard good reports, especially of dolphin swimming)