Kaikoura, New Zealand

December 22, 2016

Where the Wild Things Are

Two and a half hours from Christchurch, New Zealand lies a hidden gem called Kaikoura.

Actually, I should say it was fairly well-hidden until it made headlines when it was struck by a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake on November 14th of this year. Just after midnight, a calamity was unleashed on this small South Island town of 3,800 people from which it is still recovering.  Kiwis are known for their resilience and the “Shaky Isles” are no stranger to earthquakes, but the main attraction of this aquamarine peninsula has long been its wildlife.  Researchers are only beginning to understand how they fared during and after the calamity.

Kaikoura was likely first settled by Maori tribes who hunted Moa close to a thousand years ago, but the rocky layers that make up the shoreline are known to have been raised up over eighty thousand years ago from the sixty million year-old ocean floor. According to Maori legend, Temaki-te-rangi came here hundreds of years ago when he stopped here to eat while chasing his runaway wives. He happened upon an abundance of crayfish and thus came the name “the fire that cooked the crayfish.” A place with origins like this is too fascinating to be ignored.

My personal experience in Kaikoura was during the Christmas of 2011 when I visited with my husband. I had read the brochures and guidebooks, but nothing prepared me for the picture-perfect peninsula. In general, I am a fan of natural remote places and if they offer the added bonus of wildlife, my happiness is certain. We drove south on Highway 1 from Picton on Christmas Eve after gathering supplies and well before we arrived at Kaikoura, we located Ohau Point. I’d read about the seal pups which could easily be spotted here within a five minute walk to a waterfall from the road, but we hadn’t even laid eyes upon the path when we discovered that the outcropping of rocks just below the road was littered with New Zealand fur seals. Truth be told, we smelled them before we saw them—but it didn’t matter. Low tide allowed us to walk around photographing the enormous beasts lazing in the summer sun.

Afterword, we found the short trail that would take us to the waterfall walk and, hopefully, the seal pups that were known to reside there. When it comes to wildlife, there are no guarantees. Unfortunately, the pups don’t wear watches to know when the tourist tide will rise and swell, so I expected to be disappointed. Luck was on our side this time, however, as there were pups sitting out in the open on the rocks.

Huge round eyes that seemed to have difficulty focusing indicated either how young they were or that naptime had just finished. There was no way of knowing. But their brown fuzzy cuteness was undeniable. When more travelers appeared in a large group, we made our way out–smiles plastered to our faces.

All of this magic on Christmas Eve left us wondering what our Boxing Day dolphin swim would bring. It was a decision that I’d pondered over in the planning phase. I mean, I’d seen dolphins before many times—often in extremely close circumstances or in the water. Would this really be anything different? I was assured that it would be and we booked in to Dolphin Encounter.

Putting on a wet suit is not my favorite activity, but I will do a lot to mingle with marine life.

There were roughly 15 of us on the boat that day and as I struggled to get my suit on, I listened to an explanation of the experience by our guides. The local dolphin is the ‘dusky dolphins’ and they travel in pods of hundreds. At the time of our visit, the pods were numbering between 300 and 600. It blew my mind. The most I’d ever seen together was five or ten, but as I now knew—New Zealand is a place like no other.

As we cruised the white cliffs of the Kaikoura coast, we were assured that the dusky dolphins would appear shortly. Apparently in this case, it was all but guaranteed. An albatross flew past while I sat on the back deck looking for fins, gliding over us with an eight-foot wingspan. The distraction was short-lived as the guide shouted to get our attention and the boat turned toward the largest group of dolphins I have ever seen before or since.

Dusky Dolphins at Kaikoura

Dusky Dolphins at Kaikoura

I expected to have fun. I expected to enjoy the hell out of this experience. I did not expect the dolphins to enjoy it too—but it was obvious that they were loving making the swimmers dizzy themselves. I followed for as long as I could, stopping to snap photos with an underwater camera here and there, but they flat-out exhausted me. I loved every minute of it.

Are you wondering now what has happened to all these lovely creatures after “one of the most complex earthquakes ever recorded on land” happened in their neighborhood? I was too. Knowing those little pups and the fun-loving intelligent dolphins who loved to torture the tourists were there, I had to keep an eye on the results of the local researchers. I am incredibly pleased to report that the news is good. The seals have relocated and the dolphins have returned!

Though the number of aftershocks has nearly reached two thousand and the state of emergency was only lifted eight days ago, Kaikoura will recover. The town is working hard to restore as many services as possible and though we didn’t see them, it is known to be one of the best places in the developed world to watch sperm whales migrate and the right time of year. There is no chance I’ll skip returning to this place—it has been twisted over millions of years to its current magical incarnation and there’s no telling what’ s going to happen next. I, for one, will be there to find out. I hope you will too.

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