Head for the Point Kean car park on the north-eastern end of the Kaikoura Peninsula (via Esplanade and Fyffe Quay). From here you have the option of a shoreline or clifftop tramp to take in the panoramic vistas of this beautiful coastal stretch.
We started on the shoreline walk, which took us past picturesque rock pools, pebble-strewn beaches, seagull breeding sites, sheer cliffs, hardy vegetation and becalmed bays. We also found lookout points towards seal colonies.
We ascended a footpath carved into the rapidly rising topography to return via the clifftop walk - gaining a completely new perspective on what we had seen at sea level. The views are spectacular as the ocean sinuously curve around the coastline. The contrast of verdant green fields against the sun-scorched russet of the hilltop vegetation is striking to say the least.
Definitely worth a visit!
Let me say straight up that I thought the Whale Watch tour a bit overpriced. Opinions will differ vastly from, "It looks just like a log floating on the water..." to, "It was awesome!" I position myself somewhere in-between.
PREPARATORY: There is no doubting that the Kaikoura Whale Watch tour is extremely popular. Their website is very professional and succeeds in selling the product. Therefore, book ahead! We did over the internet and it was a painless experience.
ARRIVAL: The Whale Watch departure point is at their office situated in Whaleway on the Kaikoura beachfront. Beautiful beach and ocean views! Staff will inform you of sea conditions and possible cancellations. You will also get a coloured wristband to identify your tour group. Take a seat in the video lounge and view the high quality images of Kaikoura's bio-bounty. Presently, a staff member will give a short briefing prior to your departure by bus to the harbour. If you suffer from sea sickness - now is the time to take preventative measures (which is sold on location).
TOUR: After a short bus trip, board your craft and take a seat for the cruise towards the deep-water canyon. No one is allowed to move while in transit. A further briefing and video follows as the vessel skims over the swells towards its destination. If you feel queasy, fix your view on the horizontal lines of the coast or even the horizon. Fresh air also helps...
SIGHTS: In sunshine, the water is absolutely beautiful and the green coastline and majestic mountains form a perfect backdrop. Whale Watch offers a significant discount if they fail to locate a whale. This is highly unlikely, as they strongly rely on a resident sperm whale and they take great pains to explain that a single sighting is a successful tour! Anything more than that is a bonus. As expected, we located the sperm whale, and after bobbing on the ocean currents for about half an hour, we saw the behemoth "log", which is a description of how the whale floats up to the surface with a small portion of its body showing above the chop while the bulk remains beneath the waterline. A binoculars or zoom lens is a very good option! The great moment is when the whale dives, and staff give you plenty of notice before that happens: look out for that tail!
We were fortunate enough to spot a shark, several seals as well as a magnificent albatross on its singular journey to an unknown destination. Having seen the whale, the tour usually departs closer in to shore for a view of the large pods of dolphins that frequent this area. My wife enjoyed this more than spotting the whale. Hundreds of dolphins cavort in a burst of frenetic energy as other tour operators guide patrons into the water for a swim with these wonderful creatures.
On our way back to the harbour we were surprised to find a humpback whale - out of season and quite close to the shore. A bonus!
The Kaikoura Lookout provides spectacular panoramic views of the township and mountains to the north, Goose Bay to the south, the landscape to the west and the peninsular seascape to the east. It is the ideal location from where to orient oneself.
It is easy to find: if travelling from the south on SH1, turn right into Killarney St and then right again into Scarborough St. Drive another 1.5km and then turn right into the lane leading up to the Lookout.
GPS coordinates: 42°25'5.25"S and 173°41'29.96"E
We headed off on a whale watch tour as soon as we got there as we just couldn't contain our excitement at the prospect. Even as the operators warned us that there was a likelihood we may not see whales we kept hoping fervently for the reverse. Our hopes sure were answered as we got to see not one but two whales! What an unforgettable experience that was!
Several different species of whale can be seen off Kaikoura at different times of the year, but almost always the huge Sperm Whales. Flukes lifting clear at the start of the deep dive, adolescent male Sperm Whales enjoy the rich diet of the Kaikoura waters while building up their strength to move to the mating grounds of the warm north. Regularly diving to depths of one kilometre, Sperm Whales have been known to dive to 3 kilometres, holding their breath for up to two hours - perhaps gulping down a few groper or wrestling with a giant squid.
The clean sharp fin of the Orca is often sighted in Kaikoura, and schools of Pilot Whales are occasional visitors. And everywhere the fun loving Dusky Dolphin. Fur seals, once almost hunted to extinction are now plentiful here, resting on warm rocks after a nights fishing. Seabirds, also enjoying the rich sea harvest, are abundant.
Kaikoura is part of the popular Alpine Pacific Triangle, a touring route which links it with the Hurunui district.
Sure, you can get crayfish – as lobster is called here – in many restaurants in Kaikoura. But what about a small portion right at the place where it comes from?
The Kaikoura coast is famous for crayfish which find a perfect habitat along the rugged cliffs.
Especially on the coast north of Kaikoura you find crayfish stalls and shops along the State Highway. Rakautara, about 20 km north of the the town, is one place. The colourful shop at Waipapa Bay is another one further north (32 km north of Kaikoura).
Up there, they also have a basic campground with toilets and showers, somehow in the middle of nowhere. More info about this here:
Phone and Fax (03) 319-6340
You can also get crayfish (and paua patties) at the Fish’n’Chips shop in Kaikoura (Westend).
As we talk about crayfish I must come back to the name Kaikoura. Today it is always translated as “Eat crayfish”. The original name, however, is much longer: Te-Ahi-Kai-Koura-a-Tamatea-Pokai-Whenua. This means: the fire at which crayfish were cooked for Tamatea Pokai Whenua (the legendary explorer).
Point Kean is the final point of your walk or drive to the Kaikoura Peninsula – just a kilometre or two south of the town centre, past Fyffe House. It is the point where you have access to a seal colony – I call it: the town colony, as several others are dotted along the Kaikoura coast.
But you can only walk to the colony – on a big flat bed of rust-coloured rocks - at low tide. But you will almost certainly see seals at high tide as well. They either lie on high rocks that stay above the water line, and I have often seen seals lying in the grass and under shrubs next to the carpark.
Wherever you walk from this carpark, always keep your eyes open, as the seals could be chilling out everywhere. Make sure you do not step on any, and you do not get between them and the sea, or it could become dangerous.
Kaikoura is more than wildlife. It offers great walking, tramping and watersport activities (ie. kayaking), and the Mt. Lyfield skifield a little further out of town.
Like at many other tourist destinations in NZ there are not a lot of indoor activities on offer. But there are some things to see. For example Fyffe House (62 Avoca St), Kaikoura's oldest building from 1842, a former whaling cottage. It is on the way to the seal colony on the peninsula. Whale vertebrae form the foundation of the east-wing. It can be visited (Oct-Apr 10am-6pm, May-Sept 10am-4pm), entry fee NZ$7 (as Feb. 2007).
Phone (03) 319 5835
Along the Esplanade, the main road along the beachfront, is a tiny park (Garden of Remembrance) with arches made of whale bones.
The Kaikoura Museum (14 Ludstone Rd) shows displays of Maori artefacts, whaling, fishing, farming, fishing, social history and geology.
Phone (03) 319 7440
I do not know a more fascinating place in New Zealand than Kaikoura for watching seals. Once considered as rare, the New Zealand fur seals now have a population of 60,000, growing at a rate of 2% per year.
In fact, there are so many seals around Kaikoura that they have become a traffic hazard. First because some people just stop in the middle of the narrow, winding and dangerous coastal highway when they spot seals on the rocks of the beaches. Second because there are so many seals that some rest right beside the highway. Some make their way on to the road and become a traffic hazard of their own.
The guide barriers along the road have stopped adults but not the curious pups.
We are in Kaikoura rather often but we have never seen as many seals as since August 2006. We love a place several kms south, in a curve where a big rock sits in the sea. Normally you could always walk on the rocks and watch the seals. But once we were forced to stay at the guide barriers because the whole place was flooded with seals and their youngs. The old ones, normally rather sleepy, were very attentive and watched our steps. They were protecting the kindergartens closer down to the sea. Incredible how cute those pups are (born between mid Nov. and mid Jan.), with their lighter coloured fur, and checking out the world with their big brown eyes. BTW The NZ fur seal, also called "sea bear", looks nice with its tiny ears. (And it is no sea lion or even "Seehund", as many Germans would say.)
If you want to watch or photograph seals please only stop at a lay-by.
A safer place is the peninsula at the southern end of the township. At low tide you can walk on the rocks from the carpark to the official seal colony.
I do not dare to swim with the seals, partly because I have seen their teeth more than once, partly because of their not so great odour. But the company that offers swimming with seals assures that this is absolutely great and the seals are very playful. But I have also heard from locals that there has been the one or other biting incident.
Tours Oct-May, price $70 with boat, $60 from the shore, children $60/50. Wetsuits are provided.
Photo 2 shows a grumpy seal, photo 3 a protected kindergarten.
On photo 4 you see rather well how many seals congregate on the rocks.
With such scenery it is nearly a must to explore the Kaikoura region on foot, at least on a coastal walk.
As I am not very good with watching the tides I prefer the Clifftop Walk to the Shoreline Walk which is only possible at low tide. Both start at the seal colony at the carpark at the end of Avoca St (Point Kean). From the cliffs you also have the better views. You can combine both walks to a round trip at Whalers Bay, or continue to South Bay (where the whale watch company has its marina). Point Kean to South Bay takes 2hrs one way. A shorter link track from South Bay to Kaikoura is about 45mins.
The most popular bush walks start at a carpark west of the town, via Ludstone Rd (museum) and Mt. Fyffe Rd.
The Hinau Loop Track takes just 45mins - "hinau" is a kind of tree, but there are a lot of other species, too. The Fyffe-Palmer Track (1.5hrs) is also an easy bush walk.
The steep climb to the summit of Mt. Fyffe (1602m) is strenuous and takes 7 to 8 hours but rewards you with fantastic panoramas. There is a hut at about 1100m.
Multi-day walks in the area are the Kowhai-Hapuku Circuit (2-3 days) and the Kaikoura Coast Track which is private. The good thing about the latter is that your luggage is transported to each overnight stay, and home-cooked meals are available as extras. But you can walk without guides at your own pace. It is open Oct-Apr and takes 3 days. Price incl. luggage transport NZ$150pp (as Feb. 2007). The track starts and finishes at the Staging Post, 45mins south of Kaikoura.
There are shuttles available to all tracks. Contact the Kaikoura Visitor Centre.
You can have a smooth or bumpy ride, you can see four or five whales or not a single one, but if you are lucky - and most people are - you see some whales and a lot more wildlife. On a whale watch tour off Kaikoura's coast you have the chance to see big pods of Dusky Dolphins, some Orcas, the small Hector's dolphins, 13 species of albatrosses, petrels, shearwater, gannets and other big seabirds. And on the way to the Whale Watch centre you will surely see NZ fur seals.
The tours are really expensive but at least you have a money back guarantee. If you do not see any whales you get an 80% refund. This does not happen often because they search the whales with echo location from the vessels.
The Giant Sperm Whales are there year-round but you might also see migrating Humpback Whales, Blue Whales (the largest species, over 33m long and nearly 200 tonnes) and Southern Right Whales.
The Sperm Whales (18.5m long, 57 tonnes) are the biggest of the toothed whales. They like it in the waters of Kaikoura because the sea falls 3km deep right off the coast - perfect for those deep diving whales. They can stay submerged for up to two hours. When they come to the surface all passengers hurry up to the deck to get a better view and take photos.
When a whale floats at the surface you first only see the triangular or rounded hump two thirds along the body. Sometimes the whale ejects a big flow forward through the blow hole at the fronst left side of his head. Before he dives back - then you should have your camera ready ;-) - he lifts his tail flukes high into the air and slams them down on the water and then disappears.
Whale Watch Kaikoura is the only company with the license for those tours. They started in 1987 with tiny boats and rocky rides. Now they have built a big centre at the railway station. From there they transport the passengers by bus to their catamarans at the new marina south of the town (South Bay).
You should always make reservations!!!
Rates (as Feb. 2007): adults $130, children (3-15y) $60.
This of course is a must eventhough it is the most touristy thing to do. They have a huge centre (in an old train station) where you have to book your trip and register before you leave. They will take you with a bus to a harbour. They have hydrophones so they will for sure track down some whales for you. Tour will last about 4 hours. Attraction is the sperm whales as they are almost allways arround. You might see the following as well:ocras, humphback and dolphins.
They only seem to run the tours if the weather is more or less ok. So they will cancel a lot of trips and you might have to stay another day.
We booked our whale watching cruise well in advance, before we left Australia, which is a good idea for the time we went....February. Everything about the cruise was brilliant. The boat, the crew and the weather. And the marine life turned it on for us to.
This is probably the best and safest place to watch seals in New Zealand and around - I call it fur seals capital - Kaikoura. Safe in the respect of road safety as there is a big lay-by along SH1 - between 20 and 30kms north of Kaikoura - and in respect of not risking to get too close to the seals and still close enough to watch them.
This colony of New Zealand fur seals is some metres below the level of the road, right on a rocky shore. The waves of the sea wash into the rock pools where pups are swimming and playing under the supervision of the grown-ups, and this is absolutely enchanting. I watched six or eight pups swimming, and a huge male seal sitting on the edge of the pool like a supervisor. Once he slid into the water all the youngsters were washed out on the other side and hopped around. Sooo cute! :-)
The interaction seems to be undisturbed, and you can see fighting bulls, threatening each other, fighting over territory or a female, as dominant males have several females and other males miss out.
The seals are probably some metres further away than at the colonies on the Kaikoura Peninsula and south of Kaikoura but as said, they interact totally undisturbed as they do not have to have an eye on curious and approaching humans whom they consider a threat to their pups. In fact, watching them from Ohau Point is like watching an entertaining animal documentary.
3 hours of great fun! After gearing up with helmet, boots, and waterproof jacket it's time for some short instruction. Your guide will have you take a few spins around the parking lot area to make sure you are comfortable with the equipment. You will soon be off to some incredible views around Kaikoura. Your ride will take you through the cows and sheep crazing (and their droppings), streams, a splash through a riverbed, and even to see some fur seals around the Kaikoura coastline. A break to have some coffee or tea, and then it's time for the return trip. No experience necessary, and an awesome adventure. Plenty of time for photo ops as well.
The Dolphin Encounter gives you the opportunity to swim with the Dusky dolphins in the wild. They suggest you be a strong swimmer, and have experience with snorkelling to enjoy it to the fullest (I don't do either). I was still able to go out on the boat (paying a lesser fee), enjoy seeing the dolphins, and watch my friend swim. It was amazing to see hundreds of dolphins swimming, jumping and playing all in one place. The swimmers are allowed to get in the water, and observe the dolphins as they swim around them. They encourage you to make noises through your snorkel to get their attention, and their curiosity going. At no time are you allowed to reach out and touch the dolphins! Even though I was not able to get in the water, it was still an awesome day! If you are a swimmer, you should definitely experience this incredible opportunity.
Things to remember: You MUST book in advance. These fill up extremely quickly, and the number of swimmers is limited. If you think you might want to do it...book it! They offer a few swims each day (depending on weather conditions). We did the 5:30AM (yes, AM) trip because we were told it was canceled the least.
It is very cold in the water even with your wetsuit on. Have plenty of dry clothes available after your swim.
Some people did get seasick. Take meds if you think you might need them.