Paul Rush ventures into the domain of Kaikoura's majestic sperm whales.
This article was first published prior to the November 2016 earthquake so some details may have changed. Please check with local tourism providers for the latest information.
"Look out for a steel grey submarine-like creature," says our pilot as he guides the Gippsland Airvan with seven eager whale-watching passengers towards the eastern horizon.
"We don't have these guys trained up to wait for us out here; it's all on the whale's terms. On a good day there are four or five sperm whales here and around eighty much further out."
The cry goes out, "Thar She Blows" and we see the sun's rays catch a mushroom cloud of water vapour suspended in the air.
Within seconds, the sperm whale is beneath us and it is huge. Only from the air can you appreciate the mammoth proportions of the mighty whale, from the stubby nose to the great flukes of the massive tail.
"We call this big boy Saddleback. You can see that dark patch on his back," the pilot says.
The plane banks to the left and makes four tight clockwise circuits at the mandatory minimum altitude of 150 metres while camera shutters click in rapid succession. Then four anti-clockwise circuits are made, so everyone has ample viewing opportunities. The whale completely fills the viewfinder frame with a 300mm lens.
"Watch for the tail," calls the pilot as the great rounded head dips under the surface and the whale arches its back preparing to dive.
In its head is a reservoir of clear liquid called spermaceti, which sets to a dense white wax when cooled to concentrate weight in the head during a dive.
The tail rises majestically out of the sea and water cascades off the flukes. Bright droplets of water hanging in the air reflect pinpricks of light. The whole dark shape slowly disappears from view in a slow motion dive. Saddleback is on his way to the deep abyss of the Kaikoura Trench.
One hour later as Saddleback rests on the surface again spouting air and water vapour, he sees that the large bird-like creature has disappeared. It has flown back to the land of white-topped mountains.
Then he notices three shiny white floating islands nearby, thronged with bipedal land animals that are making loud noises and pointing things at him. He feels quite unsettled by the throng but must wait until his oxygen supply is replenished.
The strange creatures he sees each time he surfaces in Pegasus Bay, have a close affinity with his kind and maintain similar social structures. Saddleback is oblivious to this mammalian connection. He only knows that his destiny lies in another place and that he must begin his journey immediately.
He will dive 1600 metres down into the Kaikoura Canyon and follow its course to the crushing depths. On reaching his home islands near the equator his goal is to challenge the dominant old bull whale and take over his harem of 30 cows. He knows that he must succeed or face the humiliation of returning to the Kaikoura feeding grounds and a lonely bachelor life.
Once more he raises his tail flukes high and thrusts his body downward towards the abyss. Saddleback is on his way home.
Deep inside his inner consciousness Saddleback feels a new sense of urgency and compulsion. He can't fully comprehend this innate drive, even though he possesses the largest brain in the world. He knows that it somehow relates to that warmer world he once knew and the female playmates of his youth.
In the 35 years since he first entered the vast undersea world he has experienced a surprising build up of size, strength and stamina. He has reached the age of sexual maturity for sperm whales and has attained his adult length of 18 metres and weight of 40 tonnes.
Unlike his literary ancestor Moby Dick, he is intent not on revenge but on loving. He has become the new blooming Adonis of the cetacean kingdom in the South Pacific.
This lonely bachelor sperm whale is the largest predator the world has ever seen. His home feeding grounds are in the deep, dark abyss, four kilometres below the surface in the Hikurangi and Kermadec Trenches. Down there is a world of eternal darkness where mountains rise higher than Everest and ravines run deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Beyond 400 metres his eyes are useless in the total darkness, but he isn't blind. Powerful sound waves are fired out from his nose and the echoes bounce back from a kilometre ahead, illuminating a strange world of monstrous creatures.
Saddleback swims onward day and night for three weeks. The primeval urge inside him to possess his own harem is strong. It is his destiny.
He can't wait to reach the tropics and fulfil his dream.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Kaikoura is a two and a half-hour drive north of Christchurch on the South Island's east coast. The airport is located 8km south of the township on SH1.
Wings over Whales: Flights leave every hour on the hour throughout the day. The half-hour scenic flight operates all year round at a cost of $165 for adults and $75 for children. If nothing is sighted in the allotted half-hour the flight is extended by 15 minutes at the pilot's discretion. The company has a 95 per cent success rate and has been operating for almost 20 years. Call 0800 22 66 29 or see whales.co.nz for more information.