Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Kaikoura, New Zealand

Posted on January 27th, 2005

Back story: Three days before I was to set out for Kaikoura to frolic with dolphins and spot whales, Global Traveler called on me yet again to write a piece for their “Kicking Back” section – though I still maintain that “Kicking Ass” would be a better name, but then I’m no editor. I offered to write something on a European destination that I had visited a year ago, relying heavily on inadequate Internet research for the lodging and dining sections or write something on Kaikoura with the advantage of being able to examine everything in person. Thankfully, GT chose Kaikoura. I conducted a massive, two day Internet preparation session followed by an email and phone calling blitzkrieg to prepare myself and alert the locals of my imminent arrival. In retrospect this was done very half-assed and not surprisingly I was only marginally successful. I was dropped off in Kaikoura with very little planned, very little idea and very little time in which to absorb its countless offerings.

New Zealand’s South Island is widely known to contain an endless array of unparalleled diversions, beauty and scrupulously executed eco-tourism. The east coast town of Kaikoura is where the best of the bunch congregates in a year-round orgy of fun. Kaikoura – from the Maori words kai, meaning “food” and koura, meaning "lobster" – once a sleepy whaling town in decline, then a successful farming community is now a burgeoning escape destination and whale watching Mecca. Located on a jutting peninsula, the unusually deep waters off Kaikoura are host to a complex marine system which makes a rich, ideal habitat for Sperm Whales, dusky dolphins, Orca, fur seals, penguins, sea birds and a lavish supply of lobster.

At first glance, Kaikoura appears to be flirting with patience-testing, tourist over-saturation, but this potentially off-putting effect is completely diffused by the gorgeous surroundings and the extraordinarily friendly locals who will have you feeling like a cherished, old friend minutes after you arrive. The deep blue South Pacific Ocean washes up right on the town’s doorstep, providing regular glimpses of unusual marine life and birds without ever leaving land, not to mention totally wicked surf, dude. The magnificent 8,500 foot Seaward Kaikoura Mountain Range is visible from just about every spot in town, providing a stunning snow capped backdrop for much of the year. The mountains complement the superb rainbow of sunset colors each evening. With Kaikoura sitting comfortably in New Zealand’s so called “sun belt,” boasting over 2,000 sunshine hours per year, you can bank on picturesque sunsets most nights.

As for the potential downside, Kaikoura is preparing to launch a five-year expansion plan with hotels, rental properties and a general fortifying of the tourism infrastructure. It remains to be seen if this can be executed without robbing the tiny town of its charm and spirit, but short of draining the Pacific and leveling the mountains, significant detriment seems doubtful.

While Kaikoura lives and dies on the whale watching and to a lesser extent the dolphin swimming, they have augmented these already strong attractions with a dizzying array of additional, luring activities. Each day I was in Kaikoura I learned about something else that I felt I needed to experience. Unfortunately, unlike my massive success in getting free stuff out of the Indian Pacific trip, the tourist-spoiled Kaikoura people weren’t as forthcoming with the freebies, or even simple responses to my email introduction. I had no tours confirmed, much less any comp agreements, and only one night bagged at a luxury lodge outside of town in the middle of the week. I checked into the backpacker-hailed, beach-front Cray Cottage hostel and set out to beseech the town’s people for help and information, live and in all my cuteness.

My first hard lesson was that the dolphin swimming industry consisted of one single tour operator which is not remotely interested in promoting itself. Dolphin Encounter is restricted to only three outings per day, with 13 people per boat, by the orders of the New Zealand government’s wildlife restriction laws. With this understandable limitation and the clear allure of cavorting with dolphins, these guys are booked solid, weeks in advance. They don’t need anymore PR and they told me so immediately. However, I had been wanting to swim with wild dolphins for as long as I could remember, so I got on the last-minute waiting list and resolved to pay the full price for the tour, hoping that my other Kaikoura tours would be more charitable. I was extremely lucky to get on the 12:30 boat on my second day.

Before we motored out, we were briefed on dolphin behavior, what attracted the dolphins (diving, make funny sounds in your snorkel, make eye-contact, being pregnant of all things and of course “acting like a dolphin”) and what the dolphin location and count status was for that morning. We marched onto the bus, decked out in full wetsuits, carrying fins, masks, snorkels and hoods for the eight minute ride to the marina.

Sure enough, we were able to locate the pod in minutes. There were between 150 and 200 dusky dolphins during our swim, but the crew told of legendary days when pods of over 1,000 were encountered. The duskies are the most playful and acrobatic of the dolphins, but they get bored very easily so you really have to really work to keep their scattered attention. The crew shoved us into the water in the path of the dolphins and I went to work singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” into my snorkel while doing my best dolphin impression (which, I was told later, from the boat perspective looked like a dolphin with intestinal problems). Diving was very difficult because the wetsuits were buoyant, so through no small amount of work, I was only able to get the full length of my body below the water before I was bobbing back to the surface. The dolphins were very preoccupied that day. We were only in the water for a few minutes before the pod departed en mass to look for something more interesting than a bunch of gangly, noisy, rubber-clad people thrashing around in the water.

We reload onto the back of the boat and gave chase. Again we were deposited directly into the path of the pod and this time they were even less interested. They shot under, around and even right over us (I swear one of them jumped directly over me, I didn’t see the jump, but I felt the landing impact in the water right next to me). Again we climbed back onto the boat and went after them. Our third and final dive was much more successful. The dolphins hung around, and frolicked with us for about 15 minutes. The most popular dolphin-versus-human game is called “Circles.” The dolphin starts to swim around you in a very fast, tight circle and you have to turn in the water with it, trying to keep eye contact. The thing is, dolphins can swim way faster than a human can turn in the water, so they can simply pour it on and win wherever they please. I played several round of this with a few dolphins. Usually, they did about four laps before flooring it and swimming out of sight. Sometimes, if you just floated in once place, looking down, you could see dozens of the duskies zipping by underneath you, in tight formation, like underwater rush hour traffic.

Finally we were called back to the boat. We stripped off out wetsuits and dried off while we followed the duskies around, taking pictures and watching them jump and flip out of the water before we headed back to shore.

The entire trip was slightly sullied by a Tourist Diva. This is the type of person that fancies herself the center of the universe and insists on constant, rock star-like attention while she is on vacation. What’s worse, the second she is not the center of attention, she has a tantrum. Our Tourist Diva was a middle-aged woman of indeterminate European origin. She divided the trip between demanding her own personal assistant when getting in and out of the water to regaling all of us with the details of her incredible, intense experiences with the dolphins. She conducted herself as if all of us, the boat, the crew, even the mere existence of the dolphins themselves had all come together just for her. The Tourist Diva was convinced that the dolphins liked her especially so, telling us about the extra attention the dolphins gave her in the water and how fantastically attuned she is with natural, animals and the universe. No one had the patience to listen to this, much less inform her that we were all having similar if not more intense experiences with the dolphins, though we probably couldn’t have explained this if we tried, because she never shut the hell up. By the end, even the crew were ignoring her, causing her to switch to Rude, Belligerent Tourist Diva, culminating in a schizophrenic-like change of attitude about the whole dolphin swimming concept while we were being bused back to the office, relentlessly berating the crew and company for invading the sea and harassing the dolphins. What a piece of work.

While Dolphin Encounter wouldn’t budge on giving me a comped trip, they were more than keen to get me out on the Albatross Encounter tour, which had just recently started and needed a good shot of exposure. So it was that I found myself back on the boat the next day to see the world’s largest birds that can take flight (the condors are a close second). And sure enough, these mothers were huge! And mean! After we boated out a fair ways from shore, the skipper dropped the chum line into the water and within seconds a mob of albatrosses, great albatrosses, petrels, prions, shearwaters, terns, gulls, gannets and shags were on us like, well, like birds on chum. The big bully albatrosses monopolized the chum, snapping at and attacking any other bird that got within a beak’s length of the feast. If they got bored, they’d go after each other. Watching two giant albatrosses fighting, beaks nipping, huge wings flailing and screeching is quite the sight. Nasty bastards. While this was much less invigorating than the dolphin swim, I found that I was much more engaged than I had expected to be. Meanwhile, the rest of the small group, made up of aging birding enthusiasts, were going coo-coo over the spectacle. They were ooo-ing, ah-ing and clapping like they were at a Cirque du Soliel performance. Many of them could confidently rattle off the names of the birds and the subtle differences between birds that were indistinguishable to me. The skipper/guide was by far the most knowledgeable person onboard and she had a spooky, uncanny ability to spot a winged, black speck in the sky, accurately identify it and swing the boat around and give chase if it was something cool. I was very impressed.


The last leg of the tour was a test of wills for us all. A British lady started heaving from the swaying boat at our second stoop and got steadily worse for the rest of the trip. The sound of her retching and the smell of what she produced, even in an open, moving boat, was starting make everyone a little queasy with sympathy sickness. The rest of us were able to hold our lunches down all the way back to shore, but it was close.

That night was my one night in luxury. The Hapuku Lodge was the only accommodations to write back and offer me a night of gratis lodging in exchange for GT exposure. I was a little disappointed that I only got one taker, but soon I was happy that Hapuku was the one and only, because anything else would have been a letdown. Seeing as how I personally toured of most of the direct competition, I can say with all confidence that Hapuku Lodge is the first and last word in Kaikoura’s luxury accommodations. When they designed the lodge, they did a marvelous job of seamlessly melding the buildings, surrounding ornaments and landscaping into a natural, flawless cohesion. It was so eye-catching that I took a dozen shots of the exterior alone. Then there’s the stunning mountain backdrop, the olive farm, free range chickens, a deer stud corral, a pet goat and the respectable surf at Mangamaunu Bay, just a ten minute walk away. The entire package made it feel as if I had entered into a world of harmonized perfection. The lodge has six immaculate guest rooms and an apartment on the property, all custom decorated, warm and featuring “the most comfortable beds on the South Island.” I was placed in a spacious room, oozing with a wood aroma, bedecked in calming colors and generally radiating comfort. Plus, it was clean as an operating room. My mere presence made it seem as if I was contaminating the area. I rectified this by taking an immediate shower and donning my last set of unworn, clean clothes. Of course I only dressed so I could partake in the walk to the beach. Once I returned from that, it was all-nude, all-night. The room was equipped with a TV/CD/DVD, SkyTV cable, desk, cordless phone and what was described to me as “data ports” but they appeared to just be regular phone lines to me and not having a NZ Internet service provider, a dial-up connection was useless. I never found an Ethernet-looking port, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t have a cord to test it anyway. I feigned productivity for a good hour and packed it in. I wanted to enjoy my night of private luxury. The friendly owners had lent me a copy of an award winning New Zealand movie called “Whale Rider,” which was about a young, native Maori girl and her issues of being an unwanted daughter in the boy-intensive world of Maori culture. It was a nice compliment to a quiet night in NZ.

The next day I moved back into town. Cray Cottage was booked, so I checked in at Sunrise Lodge, which had also come highly recommended and everything I heard was true. Wonderful hosts, clean as could be and quiet.

After dropping my stuff at Sunrise I headed down to Dive Kaikoura to take the seal swimming tour. Again, we were kitted up in full wetsuits – mine had recently been worn and infused by someone with gagging B.O. - given a short spiel on the dos-and-don’ts of seal swimming and we were off. We were taken to the seal colony on a tiny rubber dingy. It was so small that we all had to sit on the sides and when the skipper decided to open up the throttle, it was like being on a dubious carnival ride. The sea was rough and we were getting serious air over the waves and crashing down into the water, causing all of us to bounce around as we hung on for dear life. I nearly went overboard twice and by the time we reached the colony, I had blisters on both hands from desperately gripping the safety ropes.

The young, playful seals were in a place where the sea was far too rough for us to approach in the dingy, so went turned around and parked next to the Seal Old Folks Home where the old, tired and lazy seals hung out. This was fine with me. After all the effort I had put into attracting and playing with the dolphins, just floating around and chilling with the “mature” seals was right up my alley.

The water was much colder for the seal swim. So cold it took my breath away when we first entered the water. The wetsuits are supposed to help keep you warm, but mine was gaping in the back, particularly whenever I used my arms to swim, allowing the water to rush in and pool on my bare back, leaving me gasping. We spent nearly an hour in the water with the seals, just quietly sharing the space with them. They mostly floated with their heads down or on their backs, scratching themselves. Occasionally they would take small breaks, to climb out of the water, onto the rocks and sun themselves. The old guys would get revved up for a short, spirited chase now and again, but it was mostly very tranquil. Sometimes they got very close to us, to check us out. Adult fur seals can weigh up to 420 lbs, and although they were as calm a stoned koala bear, these encounters were accompanied by no shortage of unease on my part. Curiously, with a half dozen seal swimming groups visiting them every day, I didn’t see how they could still be interested enough in our black-clad, slow and clumsy selves to still want to get up close and inspect us, but in the same sense they had probably seen so many humans by now, they felt comfortable getting within flipper distance of us with fearless indifference.

We were ordered back to the boat after what I presumed to be a short time, but in the end I was very happy we left when we did. When I climbed out of the water it was clear that my hands and feet were numb and freezing. Somehow I hadn’t noticed. I was smart and sat near the back of the boat for the ride home. Much less bouncy. On the way out, I had given those seats to the women and girls that were with us, but there was no way I was going to go through the tribulation of hanging on for my life for 20 solid minutes again. I planted myself at the back and made the girls go up front. Screw ‘em. Being nearly ejected from a high speed boat builds character.

Notice that the whale is about as big as the boat. Yikes!

The following day was very long. I spent the morning out at the Kaikoura airfield. I was ferried out there by the friendly Skydiving New Zealand people. Based out of Christchurch, Skydiving NZ had just opened a branch in Kaikoura a few months earlier. The manager took care to explain the process to me and how Kaikoura was going to extra lengths to give personal attention to every diver, avoiding the factory-like skydive assembly line phenomenon that had started to take hold at busier companies. I was offered a tandem dive at a 10% journalist discount. Even with the discount, the price was far more than I was willing to absorb and quite frankly, with my fear of heights, I’m not sure that I would have done the dive if they had dangled a $100 bill in front of me. So I passed on the offer and was content to watch the introduction, prep work and finally the tandem dive by a couple American girls from terra firma. Then I wandered next door to my appointment with the Pilot A Plane people. Basically, these guys take people up in two-seater, single engine props, let go of the controls and you get to live your own Lindbergh-moment for 20 minutes. The controls were feather sensitive, making me wonder about the potential ramifications of a sneezing fit or a hot coffee spill. Nevertheless, it was very cool. We circled around Kaikoura and out over the sea, then flew in a holding pattern while we waited for some skydivers to land, before the real pilot took the controls and landed the plane.


The Plane I piloted.

An arial view of Kaikoura.

We taxied right to the front door of the Wings Over Whales office, who were holding a plane to take me and five other people up for 30 minute whale spotting session. I was skeptical about the possibilities of seeing whales from so high up in the air, but the plane was able to circle surprisingly low and though it wasn’t up close, it was the bird’s eye view, meaning we were able to see the entire length of the whale. Spotting the whales was accomplished through a combination of following the boats who were using underwater mics to track down the whales and our own squinting off into the distance to try to identify whale spouts without mistaking them for deceptive, larger than average sea swells. We were able to spot and circle over three whales in 30 minutes. Not too shabby.

Having taken two flights in under and hour, my ears were a bit stuffed when I was dropped back at the airfield to meet with the manager of the second lodge that I needed to tour. She picked me up from the airport and treated me to a comprehensive, rambling tour of her lodge, going overboard at times with the self-promotion. I couldn’t help but notice her change of attitude about promoting her place. She totally blew off my emails when I kindly asked for a night of accommodations as a part of the deal of giving her free magazine exposure and to help with the accuracy and completeness of my review. But when I followed-up, saying that I still wanted to mention her lodge and all I wanted was a tour, she was like a circus ringmaster, hawking every last nook and cranny in the joint with excessive zeal, like it was the first and last time in my life that I might see something so amazing. I finally persuaded her to drive me back into the city, claiming that I had precious little time before my whale watch boat tour.

In truth, I had just enough time in the city to make a few phone calls and eat lunch before I was due at Whale Watch for my afternoon sea-level whale watching stint. The “boat” was a super-fast, two level, space-aged catamaran, with a completely enclosed seating area and underwater microphones to help the crew home in on whales that were preparing to surface. We were entertained with a fascinating multi-media whale presentation as we roller-coastered over surprisingly big waves to the first of many sightings. From the boat perspective, the up-close, startling perspective of the immense Sperm Whales was amazing. Kaikoura has a constant flow of Sperm Whales rotating in and out of the area., with the occasional Pilot Whale and monstrous Blue Whale making cameo appearances. We hit the jackpot right away, zipping up to two whales idling on the surface side-by-side. This is said to be very unusual, as male Sperm Whales are very territorial and hence don’t socialize much (Oddly, female Sperm Whales do on congregate near Kaikoura). Our guide explained that it was likely that the whales were grouping together for defense against Orcas that were probably in the area. After both whales dove, supplying us with the double-money-shot of their huge tails going up into the air and slowing sinking into the sea, we were off again to another surfaced whale that was just a few minutes away. It went on like this for 90 minutes. Just as one whale would dive, another one would surface nearby. We saw six whales in our 2 and ½ hours at sea. While we jetted from whale to whale we were treated yet more whale fundamentals by the guide and the accompanying presentations on the giant flat-screen TV. Meanwhile, those of us with less stable sea legs made themselves conspicuously known.

Two whales. The boat was very rocky.

Money shot.

The puking noises started coming from the back soon after our second whale sighting. Despite the back being the less bouncy part of the boat, a pregnant lady started things off and it just traveled forward from there. I was fine until the guy next to me, who vehemently claimed that he had never been sea-sick before started to retch harder than anyone else. The noises coming out of this man were enough to get the whole area unsettled. It was by far the loudest vomiting I have ever heard in my life, and I’ve been to Cancun on Spring Break three times. I had to turn around and focus out the window, trying to pretend that the man next to me wasn’t filling up one sickness bag after another with the longest food review I have ever been privy to. It actually started to get a little ridiculous after a while. The puke just kept on coming. The man must have been eating virtually non-stop all day to produce that much material. Each whale stop was a godsend as I was able to get up, squeeze past him and get outside to fresh air. He kept it up all the way back to the harbor.

Despite this unfortunate sideshow, I was much more pleased with the boat whale watch tour. We were almost right on top of the whales, which while it wasn’t the same as seeing the entire length of the whale from above, bobbing around next to these gigantic, living things was startling. Also, as I learned, with boat tours incidental encounters with penguins, dolphins and albatrosses are virtually a given. We even saw some hector dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. They were so cute!

The buzz from the whale watch wore off almost as soon as I got back to the hostel. There was a message from the Pilot A Plane guys waiting for me. Turns out they meant to charge me for that flight and they wanted their money. It was not pleasant. Through our correspondence and having eyeballed my GT assignment letter, although it was never stated outwardly, I was sure we had an understanding that my flight was being comped for exposure in GT. Well, clearly that wasn’t the case. I was very disappointed that they had waited until after the flight to inform me that they would be charging me instead of dropping the bomb beforehand, giving me the option of backing out. I was already fabulously over-budget for Kaikoura. Being a freelancer, out-of-pocket expenses are not reimbursed. I’m given a lump payment for the assignment and hopefully through comps and research I can get through the assignment without laying out too much of my own cash. This unexpected expense was not welcome at all. I managed to talk them down to a “journalist discount,” giving me half off. It was still way more expensive than, say, free, but what are you gonna do?

The next day was mercifully short on responsibility. I had a morning tour of the beautiful Kaikoura winery - sadly it was too early for me to find the enthusiasm for a sampling - and followed that up with my last lodge tour, which was by far the most intimate (only four rooms) and friendly place I had toured, but also the least remarkable property. I was done by noon and boy was I happy to finally have some downtime. I did some work, had coffee with a Juggler’s Rest acquaintance and worked a bit more before being led off on a bar crawl by one of the owners at Sunrise. About six of us piled into his mini-van to visit three very over-priced bars, but we all had a blast. I spent much of the time talking to two Japanese girls who were in Kaikoura on work visas. I quizzed them mercilessly about Japan, telling them that I would be there sometime in April or May. They were a huge help and, although we had just met, both were adamant that I come to stay with them in their respective cities. This was followed by a long and indulgent photo session starring me and later they insisted that I eat some of the lobster that they had caught that morning. I found their enthusiasm and friendliness to be a bit over the top until I remembered a discussion thread on the BootsnAll web site where it was claimed that blond, Caucasian men were akin to rock stars in Japan and other parts of Asia. Rumor had it that guys could hold court all night long with a mob of gorgeous women. This sounded a bit exaggerated when I read it, but now I was much less skeptical.

I felt a bit guilty being out and boozing it up when I should have been at the hostel writing the almost-due article, but I vindicated the indulgent night out saying that it was necessary research for the nightlife portion of the article. Obviously I could have gathered the required information with just a quick stroll down the main street, peeking in at the bars and noting the perks, but that wouldn’t be any fun, now would it? All work and no boozing makes Leif a sober boy with no lobster.

The bar crawl ended relatively early and I returned to the hostel to see that I was the only one in my room for that night. Sweet. A little budget privacy. I slept like a baby.

The next morning, laptop open and frantically typing the entire way, I took the shuttle bus down to Christchurch.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012