The jagged mountains of the Southern Alps fall almost to the sea at the town of Kaikoura, on the northeast coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
It’s a dramatic location, with sheer peaks rising behind town, and a peninsula pushing out towards the deep waters of the Hikurangi Trench, a 3,000-foot-deep gash in the bed of the Pacific Ocean.
The inky depths and the prevailing currents attract a large number of giant sperm whales, just offshore, making Kaikoura just about the best place there is to go whale-watching.
The twist – and the thing that makes Kaikoura really special – is that the ‘Whale Watch’ company is owned and operated by the indigenous Ngati Kuri people of Kaikoura. Their ancestor Paikea, they say, was brought to New Zealand on the back of a whale – the “Whale Rider” of their origin story. Now they run one of New Zealand’s best eco-tourism outfits, with a claimed 95 percent success rate for seeing the whales. After all, if they don’t know where the whales are, no one does.
They’re pretty confident too, offering you money back if you don’t see a whale.
But you do see whales. Huge whales, up close to the boat, drfiting languidly, blowing their mist before dipping their heads, flicking up their tails and diving – diving back to the depths to resume their battles with giant squid and follow the currents to their feeding and breeding grounds.
No one needs to be a pro photographer, when you can get this close, and the images you can capture are extraordinary. It’s the ‘tail shot’ everyone is after – I was lucky enough to get the perfect one, with the misty mountains rising in the background.
It’s not just sperm whales that are out there. Dusky dolphins chase the boats, and you generally also get to see fur seals, a soaring albatross or two, tons of other seabirds and maybe even a migrating humpback whale.
Then it’s back to the shore, mostly in silence, stunned by a brush with nature at its most elemental.
Whale Watch, Kaikoura – daily tours, weather permitting.