Monday, 25 March 2019

Having A Whale Of A Time

So here we are in Kaikoura. Its full name is apparently "Te Ahi-kai-koura-a-Tamatea-pokai-whenua" meaning "the fire which Tamatea-pokai-whenua made to cook crayfish". You can definitely see why it's shortened to Kaikoura - try fitting that other stuff on the front of the local bus!

This place first started out as a whaling town, and there's an old building on the coast which is literally built on whale bone foundations. However they now specialise in whale watching rather than whale killing, which is what we're going to be doing today.

We'd booked 2 places on a boat which was going out to hunt for whales and the signs looked good weather-wise. Yesterday, when we'd arrived, a mist hung over the ocean, but today it was nice and clear. We showed our tickets and were told that the sailing conditions were pretty calm so we wouldn't have any trouble with motion sickness, but I'd heard that it can get bad so I bought a couple of capsules of stuff that was supposed to help avoid any nasty spewing incidents. Then we sat down for our safety briefing and it became clear that we might have a problem. The tour promises that you will see a whale, or they'll refund 80% of the ticket price. We were told that the boat which had just returned - and which we might have gone on if we were the sort of people who like getting up early (which we aren't) - hadn't seen any whales. It was obvious that the lady delivering the briefing was preparing us for almost certain disappointment too. We boarded a bus which took us the short journey to the quay and got onto the boat, without much optimism.


As we sped out into the bay we were told all about the whales we may (or may not) see, the most likely type being a sperm whale. Sperm whales are typically 12 metres long, about the size of the boat we were on, and are attracted to this area because an underwater canyon provides a perfect place to visit and feed.

After about 20 minutes, the boat stopped and one of the crew lowered a strange contraption into the water. This was an extremely sensitive, highly directional, underwater microphone. With this they can detect any sounds made by a whale in the area and use that to work out where the whale is. They're very keen to point out that they don't use any invasive techniques to track whales, such as using sonar, as this could confuse the whales and potentially have very harmful results, so all they do is listen, and rely on information coming back from other boats.


The bad news - no whale sounds being picked up here. The engines were fired back up and we headed out further, presumably based on past experience of where the whale hotspots are. All the time, we're urged to scan the ocean looking for a plume of water which might indicate a surfacing whale. Another stop, another dip of the magic microphone, another big fat silence. We had all but accepted that we would not be seeing our first ever wild whale.

Then a radio message came in from the boat which had gone out an hour before us. They'd found a whale in the opposite direction we'd been going. They were going to hang around there so we turned around and went full throttle towards our prey - we were going to have one last try to see a whale before we had to call it a day and go home. We were really bouncing through the waves now, and if this was a calm day, I'd hate to have been out on choppy seas. I was just about keeping it together, thanks to the drugs I'd taken, but there were some retching noises coming from a few rows back which indicated that one bloke was not faring so well.

The seasick-express powered on for another 30 minutes until, thank goodness, we caught up with the other boat. Again the engines were switched off and it was all hands on deck. Everyone scrambled out of the cabin and scanned the surrounding sea. And then he appeared, Tiaki the sperm whale.


He allowed us a tiny glimpse of his back, like a shy nuclear submarine, whilst spouting water into the air. Cue 20 people snapping away with their cameras for 5 minutes. Finally with a flick of his tail, Tiaki went back below the surface where he would stay for up to an hour and a half before coming up to breathe again. We turned round and sped back to the harbour having ticked the "seen a whale" box.


As a bonus, we also saw our first royal albatross, which flew over our boat while the whale was playing hide and seek, and Jus reckons she saw a penguin as we arrived back (though it could just have been a duck on its way to a black-tie do).

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