New Zealand: Kaikoura and Dolphins

2 07 2009

If you have read my posts on Hawaii, you know about my love of dolphins.  One of the many reasons I wanted to go to New Zealand was to swim with dolphins in their native habitat.  In Hawaii, we were able to witness dolphins swimming beside our boat, but to be actually in the water with them has been a lifelong dream.  Kaikoura, a small seaside community in the east coast of the South Island, is the perfect place to experience sea life and dolphins in particular because of its unique location.  The town of Kaikoura sits on the edge of a peninsula that juts into the ocean in an area where ocean upswells bring up an abundance of marine life from the Hikurangi Trench.  Rich marine life and nutrients are pushed up near the surface, which then attracts whales, dolphins, seals, albatross and other sea life.

On the Kaikoura Penninsula, looking towards the town.

Beautiful seaweed on the beach in Kaikoura.

We arrived in Kaikoura in the late afternoon, just in time to race to dinner before it closed.  Since we were in Kaikoura, which literally means “meal of crayfish,” we of course wanted some crayfish (what Kiwis call lobster) for dinner.  Despite the abundance of crayfish in Kaikoura, however, this luxury food item is still quite expensive when eaten in a restaurant because of its popularity.  Luckily, we learned through speaking with several Kiwis that there is a way to get cheaper and fresher crayfish in Kaikoura.

Here are the exact instructions paraphrased from our motel owner on how to find crayfish in Kaikoura:  “You need to drive down the Esplanade, past the town, and almost to the end of the penninsula.  You will see a crayfish stand on the left.”  Miraculously, we were able to find this stand because it appears there is only one such stand, at least the day we were there.  The stand closes at 6 pm, though, so make sure you get there in time!

I have included a picture of the crayfish stand below so you know what it looks like.  We were able to pick our own live lobster from the cooler and have it cooked up in front of us.  The stand has a couple of tables with umbrellas where you can eat your food.  The crayfish stand is actually very gourmet and offers quite a menu.  We were skeptical when we first heard about this stand because it is on the side of the road in the middle of a virtually uninhabited place.  But we are so glad we went and were able to taste the bounty of Kaikoura.  We highly recommend it!

The Crayfish Stand in Kaikoura.  Astonishingly, just across the road from this stand was a bunch of sheep on a hill.  You just cannot escape the sheep in New Zealand.

After our crayfish dinner, we wandered along the beach on the Kaikoura peninsula and admired its beauty.  The sealife is so abundant here that I didn’t realize until I was standing on the beach for 15 minutes that a seal was only a few feet away from me the whole time.  We watched a breathtaking sunset until it got too cold to stay.

Another beautiful sunset in New Zealand.

We had an early night back at our motel because we had to wake up really early for the dolphin tour the next day.  Also, Kaikoura is probably the smallest town we visited in New Zealand and there isn’t much to do besides enjoy the scenery and sealife.  At this point in the night, we were constantly monitoring the weather because there was rain and wind in the forecast and we were afraid the dolphin swim would be canceled.  Incidentally, we also ended up watching the British version of “COPS,” which turned out to be highly entertaining.  Who knew in this day and age that there were still designated town drunks in small cities across England?

When we woke up the next day, the weather was ominous and we could hear raindrops on the roof.  When I called the Dolphin Encounter to check, however, I was informed that our scheduled trip was still on!  In fact, the earlier dawn trip had already gone out.  We quickly got ready and had breakfast in the Dolphin Encounter Cafe.  When our group was called, we were fitted for wetsuits, jackets, and snorkles.  I was afraid I might get seasick so I took a remedy.  We were also instructed on how to and how not to interact with the dolphins.  You are not allowed to touch the dolphins.  The company emphasized that it was a privilege to share the water with the dolphins and our goal was to entertain them and not the other way around.

We reserved our dophin tour through Dolphin Encounter, a well respected company in Kaikoura.  Now I will take another moment to talk about dolphins and eco-tourism.  The popularity of dolphins has created an entire industry out of dolphin tours.  While most operations are very conscious of the delicate nature of these graceful but wild animals and their homes, unfortunately a few exploitative companies have given a bad name to swimming with dolphins.  That’s why it’s very important to find out as much you can about the companies offering dolphin swims before supporting them through your participation.  We chose to use Dolphin Encounter because the company puts a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability, limiting contact so as not to jeapordize the resident dusky dolphin population, and spreading awareness of the plight of dolphins and their habitats.  You can read their mission statement here: Dolphin Encounter Mission Statement.

Now that I have said my piece, we can go on to the best part of our Kaikoura visit – the dolphins!  As with all tours of this kind, there is no guarantee that you will see dolphins.  Unlike tours in other countries, though, in NZ if you don’t see what you are meant to see, you get some of your money back!  Luckily we were able to sight a large dolphin pod after only a short time.

We saw this boat from our boat.

The next part of this trip was FUN.  The boat basically followed the pod of dolphins around the ocean and dropped off the swimmers into the water from time to time.  When I was in the water, I could literally see dolphins in front of me, behind me, under me, and all around me.  It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.

We also saw a seal. They are everywhere! I think this one was following me around.

Charles was smart and decided not to swim with the dolphins. Instead, he took some fantastic photos. I especially liked this series of shots.

What these pictures do not show, however, is how cold and rainy the day turned out to be.  Remember, we had to wear wetsuits in the height of summer just to swim in the water.  The weather was also rainy and windy that day, which made for cold, rough seas.  After getting in and out of the water 3 or 4 times, I started feeling seasick and very cold.  I chose not to go in the water again and the Dolphin Encounter people gave me blankets and hot chocolate to warm me up.  Unfortunately, my seasickness got the better of me and I got really sick.  When we got back to the base, I was able to take a hot shower and felt much better afterwards.

Despite my seasickness, which I think only happened because the seas were especially rough that day, I am happy that I was able to witness these magnificent mammals in their home.  I have always thought that dolphins were beautiful, but seeing them up close has made me appreciate their power and sleakness even more.  Next time, however, I hope to encounter them in warmer waters!


New Zealand: South Island Coastal Drive

15 05 2009

After a pleasant stay in Nelson, we set off on a scenic drive to Kaikoura, our next destination.  Remember when I talked about how the gorgeous scenery actually got better and better as we traveled south?  Well, this is one of the reasons we came to this belief.  While planning this trip, I was not thrilled that we had to drive approximately 4 hours from Nelson to Kaikoura.  I should not have worried, though, because there are plenty of worthy stops to enjoy along the way.

Just outside of Nelson are some beautiful hilly forests. They reminded us of the Black Forest in Germany. There is one section of road on Highway 6 that is extremely twisty. This narrow road hugs the mountains and includes some extremely white knuckled corners. And the most remarkable thing to us as Americans? There are no guard rails except for the hairiest of turns. When we mentioned this to one of our innkeepers, they laughed and said why should we spend our taxes on something like that? People should just be careful. Then they launched into some examples of people being found in their cars two days after driving off these ravines. Hahaha. Of course we were told this right before our drive. Those crazy kiwis! Of course I know they see us as paranoid Americans!

A particularly winding part of Highway 6 has sheer drops just a few steps from the edge of the road.  Don’t worry, you are protected by these poles every 30 feet or so.  So what if we saw some that were knocked down?  

About halfway between Nelson and Blenheim is a rest stop called the Pelorus Bridge Cafe. Two of our innkeepers suggested this rest stop not because of the food, but because there is a short hike you can do from the cafe that is beautiful. We didn’t actually do the hike, though, because we had a late start but I thought I would mention it for your information. In addition, as we found out, rest stops in NZ are few and far between. If you are craving mussels, be sure to stop in Havelock, the green lipped mussel capital of the world. Since we were not particularly interested in mussels at 10 o’clock in the morning, we unfortunately had to skip it.

Our hosts at the Baywick Inn suggested that we break up our drive by stopping for lunch in Blenheim, which is located in the heart of NZ’s famous Marlborough Sounds wine region. It is also exactly halfway between Nelson and Kaikoura. This suggestion didn’t take much convincing for us. We stopped at the Highfield Estate vineyard for lunch, a good winery that happens to have a tower from which you can see a magnificent view of Blenheim’s vineyards.

Vineyards in Blenheim are surrounded by the coast to the east and mountains to the west.

We also stopped by Cloudy Bay vineyard for a wine tasting. I’m not a wine expert, but the Sauvignon Blanc was delicious!

World famous white wine grapes from the Marlborough wine region.

After our short interlude in wine country, we continued our journey to Kaikoura. Once you leave Blenheim, the drive becomes more and more coastal the more south you go. We were on a schedule because we had booked a dolphin swim early the next morning. 

View from coastal highway 1 on the way to Kaikoura.

About halfway between Blenheim and Kaikoura is a rest stop called THE STORE. Be sure to stop here! Since there is only one road between these two towns and only one rest stop, it’s not hard to find. The Store has a wonderful cafe, restroom facilities, and several nice dining areas you can choose from to enjoy your beverages.

But the real reason to stop at THE STORE is its stunning backyard. THE STORE has a huge deserted beach you can explore, as long as you buy something.

THE STORE has a nice backyard.

We thought we were finished stopping once we began our final approach to Kaikoura, but we just had to do one more stop right outside of Kaikoura.

Coastal waters just north of Kaikoura.

Kaikoura is known for its abundance of sea life, and we had not even arrived before we discovered this seal colony next to the highway! We were able to see a lot just from the observation deck. There is no direct access to the beach below.

Ohau Point Seal Colony 

That’s not just seaweed in the water!

There are not many things in this world that are cuter than a baby seal.

A family of seals at the Ohau Seal Colony just outside of Kaikoura.

Did you know that one of the most unique characteristics of a New Zealand fur seal is that it can stand on its flippers?

Next: Dolphins!

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