Friday, March 14, 2014

New Zealand Day 32: Whale Watching in Kaikoura

We passed a pleasant night in our motor lodge—though I vaguely remember waking up a couple of times to shove Brynna back to her side of the double bed—and woke to a gloriously warm and sunny day.

B and I even had a perfectly civil violin practice, which was excellent as I was able to grab some video to send to her teacher.

Then we headed downtown (checkout time at all of these places is 10 AM) to pass a couple of hours before reporting for whale watching.

The main reason we came to Kaikoura is whale watching. There is an extremely large sea canyon—more than 1000 meters deep—just off the coast, which is apparently a haven for marine life. There are several semi-resident sperm whales and a variety of other sorts of whales that migrate through at various times of year. The local Maori founded a company some years ago to take tourists out to see them, and it’s become the main draw for the town.

Originally this was going to be a girls-only event as my dad has a tendency towards seasickness, but once he learned that the whales we were most likely to spot were sperm whales, a la Moby Dick, he decided that he’d give it a go. We loaded him up with Dramamine and crossed our fingers.

After our amazing dolphin watching experience on the North Island, and also based on a whale watching boat that Alex and I had gone out on during our honeymoon in Alaska, I figured this would be a version of those cruises—just motor around until you find something.

Well, no. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that with the sperm whales. They take extremely deep and long dives into the sea canyon, normally disappearing for 45 to 60 minutes at a time, and they only surface for 5 or 10 minutes in between. So the captain uses an underwater microphone to hear the clicking sounds that they make to locate and stun their prey, and then we try to stay as close as possible, looking around carefully for when they actually surface and spout, then zip over to see them up close.

And we were able to execute this maneuver successfully! We had stopped for a hydrophone check when the folks out on the bow yelled and pointed forward and to the left. B and I, standing just inside the cabin, had a chance to see a black bump in the water and a spray of water off in the distance before we all ran back to our seats so the captain could speed the boat closer.

As soon as he cut the engine we went up to the top deck and there he was! (Definitely a he—the sperm whales near Kaikoura are all male, as the females stay in warmer waters near Fiji.) We saw the front two thirds poking out of the water, from nose to dorsal hump…tail was underwater as he rested. We gawked and I got photos and a little video as he relaxed there, occasionally spouting. Very nifty!

After five minutes or so, one of the crew guys said that it looked like he was getting ready to go back down. And indeed, his head disappeared, and I was able to catch his tail on film as he propelled himself down into the deep once more. Amazing.

We weren’t able to find any more whales—the word from the other boats/planes/helicopters was that another one had gone for a dive about the same time ours did, so not likely to resurface for awhile—so we headed back closer to shore and instead found a huge pod of dusky dolphins.

There were maybe 50 or 75 of them, and they were zipping all around our boat and leaping pretty frequently in the air for acrobatics. Actually much more exciting than a whale, but lacking quite the same imposing presence! I actually woke Brynna up to see them, as she’d fallen asleep on my lap after the whale excitement. I was especially glad that my parents got the chance to see dolphins.

As the dolphins moved off, we headed even closer to shore to check out a seabird rookery rock that also doubled as a seal lounge. I just love watching the seals climb (rather quickly and impressively) on their fins.

Eventually it was time to head back to shore.

We then headed north along the east coast, stopping about 20 km north at the Ohau seal colony right next to the road. This is an actual breeding colony, so featured many small tidal pools full of baby seals. Adorable!

Then we continued on our way. The eventual goal for the night was Nelson, due to some excitement planned for tomorrow, but we needed supper around the time we were passing through Blenheim. With my Rough Guide trapped under the pile of bags carefully packed into the trunk, I resorted to googling and checking Trip Advisor for options. The first one that came up sounded good but turned out to also sell cigars, which was a no-go for me!

One restaurant that was getting amazing reviews on TripAdvisor was Gramado's, with comments equally praising great food, great service, and child-friendly. Sold! Except for the fact that it is a Brazilian restaurant...not exactly a cuisine known for being vegetarian-friendly. However, with the reviews I was seeing, and the fact that we were all tired and hungry, it seemed to be worth a try.

And it turned out to be amazing. As soon as we walked in, one of the owners ran through a list of veggie options, and then the other owner (it's a married couple) came over to our table once we sat down, charmed Brynna instantly, and gave us the vegetarian run-through again. We had some ridiculously delicious food—tasty garlic bread to start, as well as cassava cakes, which were a lot like deep-fried mashed-potatoey things. Mmmm. We shared a couple of mains: a pasta with pesto and mushrooms, and a dish that usually has prawns but in our case was seared roasted veggies in a pumpkin cream sauce. We were too full for dessert but are seriously considering going back when we're back in Blenheim in a couple of days. 

Full and happy, we continued on our way to Nelson, where we pulled into the Top 10 Holiday Park and Motel just as the office was closing up for the night (we'd called ahead and they'd already left our key outside to pick up). Now that we've made the transition from campervanning to car-and-motel-ing, I've discovered that the motels all offer milk when you arrive! None of us have our tea with milk, though, so we decline. Quite civilized, however.

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