Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Whale-spotting off the Kaikoura Coast

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It's taken only 20 years or more for me to finally do what thousands of tourists have already experienced - join a Whale Watch expedition from Kaikoura.

As is often the case when it comes to our own attractions the catalyst was having overseas visitors to stay.

The omens were promising of finding a whale, as, when we stopped to watch the seals just south of Kaikoura, I spotted an orca cruising south. I couldn't help experiencing an inordinate thrill in having found the killer whale for myself.

Next day while we waited in the Whaleway Station for the bus to take us to the jetty in South Bay I contemplated the giant panoramic photograph of the Kaikoura Peninsula.

The sky was cloudless, the sea a welcoming, calm blue and the mountains were etched with startlingly clarity.

Out the Whale Watch windows however the sea was a heaving grey, the stony beach was shiny with recent rain and the Kaikoura Mountains were sulking under cloud. Beside our cruise time was a note: Take seasick precautions.

Although the sea at South Bay was similarly lumpy, the Whale Watch catamaran made easy work of the journey out to the realm of the whales - the Kaikoura Canyon.

Not so all the passengers, some of whom were wincing as the twin hulls bashed into the waves.

As the peninsula disappeared into the mist there was little to see out the windows, but on the screen in the cabin was a depth indicator that appeared to be spinning out of control.

In the space of a few seconds we shot out from the relative shallows of less than 200 metres into a void up to two kilometres deep. It's hard to imagine, so the graphics featured a Sky Tower icon to one side - the deeper the canyon the more Sky Towers were piled up end on end. This was no place to drop one's camera overboard.

Once we were over the canyon, the hunting ground for sperm and other whales, the whalespotter's work began in earnest. A telltale spout was located and we motored towards it.

We'd found Tiaki - a male sperm whale that, together with several other males, has become a permanent summer resident in the canyon.

Tiaki was floating on the surface; his dorsal hump literally the tip of a massive whale iceberg. He was resting, deoxygenating ready for another dive into the deep.

We were close enough to hear the sigh of expelled air from his blowhole - it looked gentle from the boat deck but apparently is pushed out at several hundred kilometres an hour.

The crew know the telltale signs of a whale preparing to dive. We were warned to have our cameras poised.

Tiaki began to glide forward, his back arched and he slid from view like a rather lumpy submarine. And then that quintessential whale-watch moment - his tail rose up, water streaming from its flukes. It hung motionless for a second or two, serenaded by a clatter of camera shutters then it too slipped beneath the choppy sea.

While he was feeding far below us our vessel followed the sounds of several other whales but it was Tiaki we encountered again after a dive of about 40 minutes (thankfully he wasn't attempting to break the record for the longest sperm whale dive recorded of more than two hours).

Sadly the acrobatic dusky dolphins were nowhere to be seen while we were at sea but we cruised past a colony of New Zealand fur seals before returning to the jetty.

Tourists crowded the rails to photograph the pups but what entranced me was my first sighting of two Australasian gannets with their lemony yellow plumage.

Further across the bay sooty black Westland gannets and a wandering albatross swooped in the wind and a Salvin's mollymawk bobbed on the waves.

I'm not going to wait to have more visitors as a reason to go out again.

There's a pod of dusky dolphins to find.

- Jill Worrall

Click here for photos

Pictured above: Tiaki, a male sperm whale, prepares to dive. Photo / David Bingham

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