By Gillian and Darryl Torckler
Nestled between the mountains and sea, Kaikoura is on the main route north between Christchurch and Blenhiem. First impressions are exactly like any other small New Zealand town, but venture along the main road, and it soon becomes apparent that Kaikoura has many more tourists than most equivalent sized towns. Colourful signs along the main street beckon you in with promises of encounters with whales, dolphins, seals, sharks, sea birds – you name it, you can do it in Kaikoura.
Kaikoura is the marine mammal tourism capital of New Zealand and dusky dolphins are the undeniable show stopping stars. Dusky dolphins enjoy the reputation of being the most playful of New Zealand’s dolphin species and there seems to be no end to their acrobatic displays. Commencing just before sunrise, they start their gravity-defying leaps. They roll, splash, walk on their tails and porpoise out of the water. If it was a choreographed Sea World show, it couldn’t be better. In groups of two or three, they frolic with one another, their smooth, sleek bodies glistening in the low sunlight. But, the duskies don’t confine their acrobatics to the morning hours; it goes on all day and late into the evening.
Moments after a mid-morning short ride through glassy calm water, we encounter the first of the morning’s dusky dolphins. Part of a pod of more than one hundred dolphins, they jump high out of the water, flipping and cavorting. Moving quickly, we prepare to get into the water. Swimming around us, the dolphins seem to respond best to noise and movement – they love human activity, and the more insane you behave, the better they respond. The crew at New Zealand Sea Adventures have coached the group well – screaming into their snorkels, waving their arms and legs wildly – the duskies can’t resist coming to have a look. They swim, at breakneck speed, straight towards the swimmers, and deviate away only in the last couple of metres. You can almost reach out and touch their smooth bodies.
Throughout history, Kaikoura has depended upon seals and whales for its livelihood. Once a thriving whaling town, now the whales and seals are protected and, as long as they remain, the town will thrive. Technically speaking, the Hikurangi Trench brings deep, deep water close to the shoreline in Kaikoura and with the deep waters come the whales – in particular, sperm whales and seasonally, humpback whales. Diving down to 2000 metres, sperm whales need lots of space and the trench is plenty deep enough. It also brings plenty of nutrients, which help the other marine life to thrive as well.
The rocky coastline supports a blossoming seal colony. Recovering from near extinction, New Zealand fur seals find time to relax on the rocks that in the past meant their certain death. Clumsy and heavy on land, they launch into the water with great effort, but surge along waves once in the water. Sleek and streamlined – the seals leave snorkellers for dead. Ridiculously bulky and slow, we try to imitate them with our man-made flippers.
For the ultimate adrenaline divers, you can get in a cage while mako and blue sharks are lured to swim around you. It’s a real buzz and completes the total sea animal experience. And then, if that’s not enough, most days albatross are encountered when out on dolphin watching trips. In a few days, you could encounter whales, dolphins, seals, albatross, sharks and even fit in a couple of dives.
Kaikoura’s local economy is totally centered around its marine mammal population. The local experience would make an interesting chapter in any business textbook – how to turn a few thousand sea animals into a multi-million dollar industry. Lots of people come to watch the whales and dolphins, but an increasing number of hardy swimmers take to the water for what always promises to be a wonderful and unpredictable adventure. Swimming with dolphins and seals is the specialty of New Zealand Sea Adventures who always seem to know where they are. But, most importantly, are able to gauge the duskies moods and seem to know which animals want to play. And when a dusky dolphin wants to play with a snorkeller, there are simply not enough superlatives to describe the experience.
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