|For many people traveling around New Zealand, Kaikoura is a fun but brief stop on the agenda. Perched on the northeast coast of the South Island, about midway between Christchurch and Picton, it might easily be overlooked altogether were it not for its most captivating residents: its whales and dolphins.
Off the Kaikoura Peninsula, the cold waters of the south mix with the warm waters of the north and east in an elaborate system of deep trenches and troughs, creating an ideal habitat for a wide variety of marine life not normally found so close to a coastline.
|The waters off the Kaikoura Peninsula are home to a variety of whales.
A perfect playground for large colonies of fur seals, it is also home to gigantic sperm whales, migratory humpback and killer whales, and huge pods of dusky dolphins. Yet as I discovered, although Kaikoura’s raison d’être may lie in the waters surrounding it, there’s just as much fun to be had in the skies above it.
I rolled into Kaikoura by bus, traveling north from Christchurch, and immediately warmed to the simplicity of the place. Although popular with tourists, Kaikoura remains far from overdeveloped.
The majority of activity centers around the few shops, cafes, restaurants and tour operators along the waterfront. Having run myself ragged in New Zealand’s adrenaline-soaked south for a few weeks, I was ready for some rest and relaxation. A day or two at most, I thought to myself: plenty time in a town with only one real attraction.
I checked into Top Spot Backpackers. With the mountainous backdrop of the Seaward Kaikoura Range on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, it was the perfect hilltop hideaway. I couldn’t stay hidden for long, though. I’d been eager to swim with dolphins all my life, and now that I was here in Kaikoura, my excitement soon got the better of me.
I’d been indulging in water sports for years, and was quite used to slipping in and out of wet suits, yet still I struggled, pulling at huge handfuls of rubber as I tried to pull the thick suit up and over my shoulders. I was one of about a dozen people in the Dolphin Encounter office who, though red in the face and cursing under our breath, were getting ready for what promised to be a magical experience. Due to the bitterly cold water in the deep troughs off Kaikoura, keeping warm was of utmost importance, even if it meant sacrificing one’s comfort, not to mention one’s dignity.
A friendly and enthusiastic crew led us onto our boat, welcomed us aboard and set a course for open water. Sitting on the deck at the back of the boat, we were told that once in the water the best way of attracting dolphins was to dive and turn and splash, as they do.
It would also help, we were told, to make high-pitched calls and noises, perhaps even sing nursery rhymes beneath the surface. I’m telling you, waddling around like an emperor penguin wrapped tightly in rubber, practicing your high-pitched dolphin calls is a great leveler of people. Before long we’d all been reduced to fits of giggles.
Once the boat stopped, we all slipped off the back into the water. Suddenly we were surrounded by a pod of about 200 to 300 dusky dolphins. They appeared before my eyes as if from nowhere, darting back and forth across my line of sight, criss-crossing each other as they raced past. I dived down to get in among them, spinning and turning in the water and squeaking with all my might.
Some shot past like silver bullets — one shot straight between my legs, merely inches beneath me — while others paused to circle us a few times before hurtling on, leaving us spellbound in their wake.
To cap it all, we caught sight of a huge sperm whale which, seemingly on cue, dived, thrusting its powerful tail straight up into the air before disappearing into the depths.
|Flying over Kaikoura affords birds-eye views of sea cliffs.
Swimming with the dolphins in their natural habitat, backed by Kaikoura’s rugged coastline, I felt a genuine high. Kaikoura’s star attraction had more than lived up to the hype.
That evening, as I made my way back to my room, I noticed a sign in reception: Ever dreamed of taking to the skies? Fly a plane for only US $70!
Hang on, this wasn’t on my Kaikoura “to do” list. But still buzzing from my afternoon with the dolphins and keen to try my hand at anything, I called the number and made the necessary arrangements. A taxi picked me up at about noon the following day and drove me the 4 miles (6 km) or so out to Peketa Airfield.
It looked more like the cricket field in my local village: a couple of outbuildings and a well-worn grass runway were the distinguishing features. My instructor, a small, bespectacled gent named Barry, strode out to meet me. Brandishing what appeared to be a rather crude toy plane, he said, “So have you ever flown a plane before?”
“Afraid not,” I answered.
“Oh it’s quite simple,” he said, now holding the toy out in front of me with a wry smile. “Nose … tale … wings. Got that? Right, let’s go!”
The instruction period now apparently over, Barry led me across the grass to our three-wheeled, two-seater Cessna 150. After we’d both climbed into the small cockpit and Barry had started the engine, I got the next lesson in my whistle-stop guide to aeronautics: a 30-second run-down of the instrument panel. Then to my surprise and delight, he sat back and casually told me to taxi over to the runway.
“Am I actually doing this?” I thought to myself as I pulled back on the stick and lifted the nose of the plane off the ground. We soared higher and higher until Barry told me to level off, explaining how to keep the nose level with the horizon.
Despite his nonchalance, I was never in any doubt of Barry’s expertise, and his dual controls were never far away should he need them. As I settled in to my pilot’s role, it hit me just how lucky I was. I couldn’t have picked a better day. With barely a cloud in the sky, Kaikoura was laid bare beneath me. Visibility was so good that Barry could clearly point out the cityscapes of Christchurch to the south and Wellington to the north, with miles of spectacular coastline and glistening ocean in between.
After I’d mastered the basics, Barry began to show me how to bank, and even sent the plane into a stomach-turning nosedive. Each time he’d take control, demonstrate, and then hand the controls back so that I could have a go. Soon I had virtually free reign over this tiny plane, this lunch box with wings.
|First-time flyers get to swoop and dive like the professionals.
I swooped left and right, dropped like a stone and rose like a rocket, with Barry now feverishly taking photos with my camera (so I wouldn’t miss any of the view) as I played cat and mouse with imaginary German Messerschmitts.
As we came in to land, I expected Barry to take back the controls. All this trust had been great, but surely I wasn’t expected to land the thing, as well.
“Just take her down gently.” Barry said. “Not too steep an angle. I’ll be here if you need me.”
My landing was smooth and uneventful, but unforgettable. I received a certificate congratulating me on the successful completion of .4 hours dual instruction toward my pilot’s license. Only 59.6 more hours and I could be a pilot!
If You Go
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura
Kaikoura Information & Tourism
In addition to dolphin- and whale-watching, Kaikoura also offers fishing, wine tasting, kayaking and horse trekking.
New Zealand Tourism