Turning off the busy main street of Kaikōura down Whaleway Road heading towards the Whaleway Station, it’s hard not to get excited about our upcoming whale watching adventure when the speed bump we cross is shaped like a whale’s fluke.

Before our tour departs, we take some time to grab ourselves a coffee and walk along the beach outside the Whale Watch offices where we were told Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest of the dolphin species, usually frequent. Sure enough, as soon as we sit down on the warm pebbles, we see a small dorsal fin in the shape of Micky Mouse’s ear breach the water’s surface.

A short bus trip takes us from one side of Kaikōura’s peninsula to the other. Here, Sperm whales, the world’s largest toothed predators, can be found off Kaikōura’s coastline right throughout the year. This is because Kaikōura’s waters provide a unique habitat for oceanic life. Only a mere 800 meters from land, the Kaikōura Canyon plummets to depths of 1200+ meters. 

Once we boarded the boat, we were told on our tour that Kaikōura’s nutrient-rich waters are often referred to as a ‘cold-water supermarket’ for marine life. Cold currents from Antarctica mix with warmer currents from the equator, providing nutrients that encourage a food chain which begins with tiny plankton and goes all the way up to dolphins and whales.

As we head out to the whale grounds, our tour guide Arahia announces that tours today have already located two Sperm whales in the area and that the whale closest to us is due on the surface. Anticipation builds amongst the guests as we all crane our heads to see who will be the first to spot the whale.

Kaikōura has one of the most beautiful seascapes in New Zealand. Imagine being out on the water on a crisp blue-sky day with snow-capped mountains as your backdrop? Dramatic mountain ranges give way to rolling hills that meet the ocean in shades of emerald and blue.

Soon someone from the upper deck shouts and points out to the distance where a spout of misty water can be seen. Captain Paki steers us closer to the spouting until the back of a great whale comes into focus.

Over the microphone Arahia tells us that this is Tiaki, a semi-residential whale to the Kaikōura canyon. The crew can distinguish individuals by their unique tails and dorsal, and Tiaki is said to be a whale they have been watching on Whale Watch tours for more than 20 years. 

Paki switches the boat engines off and we sit parallel to the magnificent whale, which measures just as long as the boat we are standing on. We all watch in silence as we take in the significance of this special encounter with the world’s largest toothed predator.

When Tiaki goes to dive down, Arahia warns us over the microphone so that we can all be ready with our cameras to get the iconic ‘tail shot’ that I saw in a magazine back home which first sparked my interest in coming to see these wild mammals for myself. Seeing Tiaki’s powerful tail lift high into the air first-hand was breath-taking.

After leaving Tiaki, we headed further inland where we encountered a large pod of 100+ Dusky dolphins, the most acrobatic and social of the dolphin species. We didn’t know where to look! Dolphins were leaping out of the water all around our boat and playing in its bow as we cruised around.

We were also able to spot another Sperm whale, a handful of New Zealand Fur seals as well as a variety of marine birds on our tour, including the Great Wandering Albatross.

Due to the Kaikōura waters being so popular with marine life, Whale Watch Kaikōura has a 95% success rate, and guarantees an 80% refund if a tour is unable to sight a whale.

Kaikōura is a marine mecca. It is home to many marine species, including Sperm whales, Hectors dolphins and Dusky dolphins, and is also visited by transient species, such as Humpback whales, Orca, Pilot whales, Blue whales, Fin whales and Southern Right whales. Every day and every tour is unique. Part of the thrill of a Whale Watch tour is being out on the open ocean viewing wild mammals in their natural environment. You never know what you might see.

Whale and blue sky

Hectors Haley Bacter