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  • rshill1973

Whale watching in New Zealand

Updated: Dec 8, 2023


The huge tail of a Sperm Whale disappearing underneath blue water, with mountains in the background
Mati Mati the Sperm Whale, submerging

Put the wildlife on hold just for a moment. I'll begin with the first rule of Blog Club – always keep your blog up to date.


It’s a generally accepted rule amongst the digital cognoscenti that it’s no good just having a blog. You’ve got to keep it updated. Nobody pays attention to a blog that’s been gathering dust for a year.


I’ve fallen prey to this cardinal sin. Haven’t posted in ages. So it’s time to fix that.


I thought I’d start by going back to October 2022 and our trip to New Zealand, which was fabulous in so many ways.


There was some initial nervousness about the flights, our first long-haul flights in over 20 years. Thirty hours in the air didn’t particularly appeal. But it was fine in the end, more tedious than anything.


After attending a friend’s wedding in the rather pretty town of Martinborough on the North Island, we hired a camper van and toured the South Island for two weeks.


Our first stop turned out to be our favourite place of the whole trip – the small town of Kaikoura, tucked in by a small peninsula on the east coast. Mrs H described much of the South Island as looking like Wales and Cornwall had had a baby, and this was definitely true of Kaikoura (https://www.kaikoura.co.nz/).


The town itself sits on a thin strip of land backed by lush green sheep and cow pastures, behind which loom towering, snow-capped mountains (certainly dwarfing anything in Wales!). The beach itself is rather thin, sweeping around to Point Kean, where a large seal colony makes the most of the rocky outcrops.


We found a delightful, compact, basic campsite a mere 100 yards from the beach, with amazing views across the bay. A breeding pair of Spur-winged Plovers noisily and aggressively defended their two chicks in an adjacent field. Variable Oystercatchers – some wholly in jet black plumage – piped and squabbled on the beach. And a White-faced Heron stalked the damp slopes above the van.



Being Spring, the air was full of birdsong, most of it curiously familiar to the ears of a British birder. Skylarks, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, and Yellowhammers were all proclaiming their territory. It was all a bit disorienting. Listening in vain for endemic passerines, I was at least able to pick out the reedy insistence of a singing male Fantail.


But we were in Kaikoura for one main reason – whale watching. A heavily protected marine environment, Kaikoura is famous as a great place to see whales, dolphins, fur seals, and a wide range of seabirds. Whale Watch Kaikoura are the main tour provider, and they were superb guides (https://whalewatch.co.nz/).


The reason why wildlife here is so abundant? Food, of course! The Kaikoura Canyon sweeps in from 60km away and is itself connected to a submarine trench system which extends far out into the Pacific Ocean. The canyon comes within 800m of the coastline, bringing with it cold water from the ocean depths. This cold water is very nutrient-rich, and able to support a lavish, complex food web.


We were very lucky – after an initial mix-up with the booking we ended up sailing out on a day when the sea was calm, the gentle waves competing with a clear sky for blue brilliance. A presentation by the friendly, passionate, and knowledgeable staff whetted our appetite, although I admit to only half paying attention. I kept looking out of the window, distracted by all the shearwaters passing by. A huge bird carving through the air on stiff wings could only have been an albatross. I was eager to get up on deck!


The waters around Kaikoura are home to Sperm Whales (https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/sperm-whale) all year round. They’re all young males, who spend time here feeding and maturing before joining the females in warmer tropical waters. It’s a bit of a boy’s club. Males can take 25 years to reach breeding age.


Sperm Whales are well known for diving deep – average 800m – for their food, which largely consists of squid. They can hold their breath for up to an hour, meaning that you often have to wait a while to see one. And this was the case on our tour. The Whale Watch staff took regular sonar readings to listen for the whale’s echolocation, and combined with a knowledge of the whale’s habits, they were very confident of locating one eventually.


Their confidence wasn’t misplaced, as after about an hour we were excitedly told that MatiMati had finally surfaced. MatiMati is a young Sperm Whale who has been semi-resident off Kaikoura for several years now and is regarded as a pretty reliable performer.


The boat engines were turned off and the pilot expertly guided us alongside MatiMati. To be honest, my first impression wasn’t as awe-inspiring as I had anticipated. This huge whale, easily as long as our boat and weighing 40 tonnes, was practically immobile on the surface. Just chilling, as I would be if I’d been deep sea diving for an hour and had run out of oxygen!


His back, a dark slate grey and covered in knobbles and ridges, glistened with water. His innate stillness meant that he didn’t look quite real. He looked like a giant rock, and I struggled to equate this long grey lump with a living creature. As if to reprimand me for my insolence though, he would regularly spew forth water from his blow hole. “I am alive, you idiot!”. All of which is probably a demonstration of how.......different this wildlife encounter was from anything I'd experienced before.


A Sperm Whale resting on the surface of deep blue water, blowing water spray into the air
Mat Mati the Sperm Whale, resting on the water

And for a short while there was peace, patience, and inertia. The motionless whale on the ocean surface. The boat, engines still off, bobbing gently. The quiet, almost respectful, murmurs of two dozen tourists watching and taking photos.


Suddenly a voice on the tannoy informed us that MatiMati was getting ready to dive. Taking in as much oxygen as possible into those enormous lungs, which because they compress on deep dives, are protected by a collapsible rib cage.


A couple of minutes later, that long grey back slid beneath the waves. And then up came the tail. It was only at this point, the enormous tail rising from the water less than 100 yards away, that I was able to connect what I was seeing with a living thing. Just impossibly big. And of course, now was the chance to get the money shot. Cameras clicked away. After a few brief seconds the tail disappeared, and the whale was gone, back to the inky black depths where we can’t go.


Cue gasps of admiration and a tangible sense of joy and wonder amongst us all. Broad smiles. The knowledge that we’d all seen something pretty special.



But that wasn’t the only cetacean highlight. Orcas (or Killer Whales as they’re better known, but I don’t like that name) are also seen frequently seen off Kaikoura. Now these are a different beast altogether to the stately, huge Sperm Whales. They are certainly more familiar to us all through TV shows and (blargh!) marine parks.


Orcas (https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/killer-whale) are essentially huge dolphins, reaching lengths of nearly 10m and weighing up to 10 tons. They have a distinctive monochrome appearance and a huge dorsal fin. They’re predators, swift and clever. One can’t imagine an Orca lying motionless on the ocean surface for 10 minutes, taking in deep breaths. They are found throughout the world’s oceans and have a hugely varied diet. They’re true apex predators.


Towards the end of the tour, as we were heading back to shore, a male was spotted heading across the bay. The boat quickly drew alongside him but kept a respectful distance. This male was on the move, and we had to keep up with him. No dawdling with the engines off this time.


It was difficult to get good pictures as he was quite far away and moving fast. And as he moved, he occasionally breached the surface, meaning we could just about see the white chin and white patch just behind his eye.


A second male was spotted behind the boat, at a greater distance, heading in the same direction. But he was more elusive and we only saw him a couple of times. Soon – all too soon – both males were out of sight. A thrilling, brief encounter full of dynamism. Not as co-operative as MatiMati but to me entirely in keeping with the Orca’s spirit.


A distant shot of an Orca whale breaching the blue water, with its tall dorsal fin visible
One of the Orcas speeding away into the distance

There was plenty of other wildlife to see on this brilliant tour. A large pod of 100+ Dusky Dolphins swam right in front of the boat, sleek, fast, and playful. Doing the usual dolphin thing, leaping and jumping clean out of the water on occasion, but making it look so effortless. The video below was taken with my iPhone - that's how close they were.


Dusky Dolphins are the commonest dolphin species off the Kaikoura coast and sightings on these tours are practically guaranteed. We also saw a couple of Hector’s Dolphins, which are much rarer. To be honest I wouldn’t have known what they were if the guide hadn’t pointed them out.



And the birds. Most common were the shearwaters – Fluttering Shearwaters and Hutton’s Shearwaters, both of which breed in huge numbers on the slopes south of Kaikoura, flying out to sea to feed. And they were everywhere, little birds on thin stiff wings, skimming low over the water, always in a hurry.


More leisurely in flight and behaviour – as befits their considerable size – were the albatrosses. Many individuals remained very distant, merely far away silhouettes. But a few came closer to the boat, settling on the water. By far the best looking was the Salvin’s Mollymawk.


‘Mollymawk’ is the name given to many of the smaller albatross species, although these birds are still the size of a goose. The Salvin’s Mollymawk (https://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/salvins-mollymawk) has a lovely ash grey wash across the head and neck, a dark little ‘eyebrow’ which gives it a slightly perturbed expression, and a large, yellowish bill. We were accompanied by several of these birds during the tour, which seemed quite happy to sit on the water, meaning I was able to get a few photos.


A face-on shot of a Salvin's Mollymawk, which is a small albatross species
Salvin's Mollymawk

Overall, this was an amazing tour, with some brilliant, unforgettable experiences packed into four short hours. And I haven’t even mentioned yet how stunning the scenery looked when viewed from a few miles out to sea! It really was the perfect start to our two weeks on the South Island.

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