Kaikoura - Mr T, The Prince of Whales

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February 3rd 2016
Published: March 20th 2016
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For many years I have carried a mental travel wish list. I'm reluctant to call it a bucket list because it was started so long ago I was too young to consider my mortality, but tempus fugit as they say. The list is fluid and we've been fortunate to tick a few things off as the years have passed. Steve has a list too, but it tends to be of places to visit. Mine is more a list of things to see. I've never made a determined effort to seek these things out until just recently as I've begun to realise that some things on my list are just not going to happen without a bit of planning. So, while Christchurch completed our circle of South Island, it didn't complete our journey.

One of the 'things' I've been wanting to see for many years is a whale. Any whale would do but the bigger the better. We've tried seeking them out in a couple of other countries we've visited but have always been disappointed. Steve even persuaded me to go to Iceland one year, dangling the whale carrot as incentive and, even though I don't 'do' cold, it was too much of an enticement to resist. (We spent several hours in a boat on a rough sea in the frigid cold and still saw no whales!) So, when I realised that it was possible to see whales in New Zealand, our itinerary for South Island was somewhat dictated as I had a BIG birthday (you know, one of those with a zero on the end) while I was there and Steve arranged this part of the trip as a birthday present. Kaikoura had better get the flags out!

We called at the Ace car rental office before leaving Christchurch to extend our car rental in North Island by a day. We parked the car so that The Scratch wouldn't be immediately visible to any passing employee - time enough to deal with that and I didn't want to do it on my birthday! Then we hit the Alpine Pacific Triangle Touring Route (doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, does it?), part of Route 1. I intermittently sang 'Happy birthday to me' for just about all the journey from Christchurch but it wasn't the same as having friends and family sing it down the phone and I'm pretty tuneless at the best of times. Steve was stoic but didn't join in.

The journey was very pleasant and the sun shone. We had a long stretch with no towns for miles and, though the scenery was wonderful, we were very relieved, in more ways than one, when we finally arrived in Cheviot so that we could avail ourselves of their toilet facilities. We weren't the only ones there - it seemed that other travellers had had the same issue and there was quite a little community of people in and around the car park enjoying a much appreciated rest stop. We followed a rocky coastline towards Kaikoura, often travelling parallel to the railway line (you remember, for that one train?) and even cutting through tunnels just like the train tracks. Immediately on arrival in Kaikoura we bought our tickets for a whale watching trip the following day. Steve had factored in an additional day as well, just in case the whales didn't show on day one, but the tickets weren't cheap so we hoped for a positive outcome.

Following lunch we checked in to the Mediterranean Motel about 3 pm. The room we were allocated was OK but it was in a corner right next to reception so we would have had no peace and quiet with all the comings and goings. It had no outside area to speak of that wasn't being used to store brooms and BBQ equipment and, more importantly, it had no view of the mountains. I always argue that I don't spend enough time in the rooms to need all the trimmings but, you know, it was my birthday and all that, so I got a transfer to a room right at the end of the block that was quiet, had a nice outside area and a view of the mountains. Thank you very much and happy birthday to me!

We woke the following day to clear blue skies. Our trip was booked for 11 am. The info we were given said to dress warmly, take anti-sickness pills if necessary and get to the 'Whaleway Station' (the collection point was in the under-utilised train station because, no trains) 20 minutes before departure. I was so excited I dragged Steve out of bed earlier than needed and we got there before the preceding trip had left so they moved us across to that one. As we were getting ready to depart a member of staff said that the conditions were moderately rough but an earlier trip had seen a whale! There could have been a perfect storm brewing for all I cared, I was going to be on that boat no matter what! We boarded a bus that took us down to the harbour where our boat was waiting for us.

The tour company is a Maori business. The legend goes that the first Maoris arrived in NZ on the back of a whale. When the work situation was dire in Kaikoura some years back, with no potential prospects, one Maori decided to create a new future, again on the back of a whale but this time by utilising the tourist aspect. The firm has grown since its early days of offering trips to small groups of six in a rubber dinghy affair, and they now have splendid boats and even helicopters which report sightings from the air. Our boat was waiting in the harbour with a crew of four: the skipper, the sighter, the safety man and the narrator who told us that the boats always ran well under capacity to give everyone the best experience. She also told us not to raise a whale alert until we had seen two spumes as they had spent many a trip following the Log Whale, the Small Boat Whale and the Raft of Seaweed Whale, all sighted by over-excited tourists.

I think I mentioned I'm not a good sailor. We had to be seated while the boat was in motion but we could move around freely while we scanned the sea for a whale sighting. I just couldn't get my sea legs on the choppy water and wobbled around all over the place until Steve just 'parked' me at the railings on the front of the boat while he went on the upper deck to look for things. Suddenly, a whale! The captain listens for 'clicks' from the whales underwater and when it goes quiet it apparently means the whale is about to surface. Well, you've never seen anyone move as fast as me! I was shameless in my determination to get to the right side of the boat, clinging on to total strangers, hanging onto the shirt-tails and random anatomical parts of strange men and stretching the cardigans of tiny Japanese ladies as I lurched my way around to the other side like a drunken sailor to get myself in just the right spot to see the whale surface. Just wow. Happy birthday to me.

The big whales in Kaikoura are sperm whales and they are all males who have more blubber than the females and can therefore withstand the cold waters. The deep shelf drop-off just off the coast provides the perfect feeding ground for the whales, who love the giant squid down there. They tend to hang around all year and don't seem a bit bothered by the boats; as our guide said, they could always move on but they choose to stay. Today our whale was Mr T and I thought he was the most handsome whale on the planet, even though he was battle-scarred, somewhat grey and rather fat. He came very close to our boat and we were able to watch him doing his thing on the surface, digesting his food and getting rid of all his toxins in an unhurried, relaxed fashion. Apparently, sperm whales are a bit like icebergs in that the bit you see above water is only a small fraction of the whole so he must have been huge. We saw him spouting a spume of water before the narrator, reading the signs, told us he was about to dive and to have our cameras ready. Within moments he dove under the water, showing us his splendid tail as he went under. I got all emotional with happiness - soppy or what but I didn't care. Just amazing. Happy birthday to me.

Steve rejoined me from the upper deck where he had been with the camera. I asked him if he had got the tail shot. He wasn't sure as he'd been just as mesmerised as me, just watching. I'd had the camcorder but was so engrossed in watching Mr T that I was pretty sure all I'd recorded was the side of the boat and the sea and the ridiculous excited noises I made. No matter - we had the experience and the memories. We were just telling each other about it when the sighter suddenly pointed to the side of the boat - a pod of pilot whales had swum alongside us, protectively encircling a baby in the midst of them, together with a number of bottlenose dolphins - safety in numbers. This mixed group played and jumped around in the air and under our boat for a long time, entertaining us with their antics. Could my day have been any better? I thought not. Happy birthday to me.

Our captain had to turn for shore eventually, but none of us on board was disappointed with our trip. We started watching the skies instead of the water - our narrator pointed out a giant wandering albatross, some petrels and black-backed gulls. On any other day these would have been wonderful things to see, but TODAY I SAW A WHALE! Bit hard to compete with that. We started travelling quite slowly. The captain came to the edge of the boat near where we were standing, sticking his listening device under the water. No, it couldn't be, could it? Not another whale?! Oh yes it could, and not just any whale but the fantastic Mr T again! He'd been underwater for about an hour, had caught himself some more squid and was coming up to the surface to have a rest and digest his meal. And so we had the whole experience all over again - a double whammy! Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me .....

We had to return to shore now, after we got a second chance to capture that magic tail moment on film for posterity. What memories. On our way back we were greeted by a pod of Hector's dolphins (quite rare I think) and they playfully escorted us back to harbour where a solitary fur seal took over. The crew of Captain Jim, Woody, Tu and our narrator saw us off the boat and onto the bus back to the Whaleway Station. And guess what was there? The one and only tourist train in the whole of the South Island! Me and the driver were developing quite a relationship and we waved to each other like old friends. It was a lovely end to a wonderful trip. I was buzzing then and I'm buzzing now at the recollection.

So, an unashamedly single-topic blog this time. It was The Best Birthday Present Ever. Happy birthday to me!

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23rd March 2016

So pleased you eventually got to see whales and especially on your significant birthday xxx
23rd March 2016

It was fantastic and just at the right time! Couldn't have been better timing. Jx

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