Day 162: A Whale Of A Time

Tues. 22nd January 2013

Thar she blows!Yes, I know that could be the title of our whole trip but today it really was appropriate. We are booked on the 9am whale spotting flight and as we poke our heads out of the van there is not a cloud in the sky. As the airfield is a little way out of town and we will be heading on straight after our flight, we take a little time to check out Kaikoura railway station. We’ll be passing back through it on Friday but that will be on a train on our way to Picton and to the ferry to North Island.

View from Kaikoura railway stationKaikoura is one of the places in New Zealand where there are Sperm Whales all year round. There is a deep sea trench close to the shore and this ensures an ample supply of squid. Apparently, young males spend 10 years or so offshore while they come to maturity. Whales, then,  have always been a part of Kaikoura’s economy – for the Maori and the European settlers as a source of food and not for the tourist industry. We opt for a flight rather than the boat trip because a) it is not that much more expensive; b) we think we have a better chance of spotting whales and when we do spot them we’ll see more of the whale; and c) because of our time constraints.

Two smug whale spotters and their planeOur flight is on a Gippsland GA8 – I’d never heard of these before but it is like a stretched Cessna. There is just us and a family of 4 (and the pilot) and everyone gets a window seat. We even have a safety briefing – but this is before we get to the plane and we are also issued with a lifejacket. Also, as part of the pre-flight briefing, we have our expectations set – “we can’t guarantee that you will see whales – and there is no refund if that happens”. We had better keep our fingers crossed then!

View back over Kaikoura peninsula where we were walking yesterdayAfter a smooth takeoff we head out to sea. Once we have taken in the fantastic views back to the mountains and down to the beach and the coast we all start scanning the ocean. We are looking for the ‘blow’ spray which we have been told is the easiest way to spot a whale from distance. The minutes tick by and there is no sign of whales. Its hard to be sure, but it feels like we have started to turn back. Those expectation setting words are running round our heads – surely we’re not going to be one of the unlucky ones?

Our first whaleThen the pilot starts waving and pointing ahead and to our right – it’s a whale, and a big one at that. We head over and circle round it, cameras click frantically. We are flying at about 150m and are about 300m from the whale and so the scale and size don’t really come across in the photos. But they are majestic. Our whale is about 16m – 17m long and swimming on the surface with a spray coming from his blow-hole every minute or so. After a couple of minutes, the pilot says “he’s going to dive” and sure enough there is one last blow and then with a wave of his tail he has gone. After 5 to 10mins on the surface, he will spend 45mins or longer at depth.

Waving goodbye for 45mins or soWe feel much relieved to have had a good look at a whale and shortly after we spot a second – a little smaller – and once again, the cameras are bleeping and clicking away. Even better, on our way back to the airfield we spot a third whale and have another couple of minutes before the pilot decides that our 30 minutes flight time has been well exceeded and we really do need to get back.

We still love the mountain sceneryWe are more than pleased that we chose to fly rather than take the boat. Now that we understand that each whale (and they are solitary creatures) spends a relatively short time on the surface and a very long time at depth, we wonder what the chances of actually seeing whales on the boats are. As an added benefit, because the flight was smooth, Janet now feels better about flying in small planes (she was put off after a very bumpy flight to view the Grand Canyon 20 years ago).

Gorge and bridge over the Hanmer RiverOur drive to Hanmer Springs – our last stop on our tour of South Island – takes us up and into the mountains (also for the last time). We are still impressed by the dramatic mountain scenery. I wonder if you would ever get tired of it. It’s not just the rugged mountains and the deep gorges with fast flowing rivers, there are also flat plains surrounded by rolling hills where the golden brown of the grasses mixes with the colour of the rocks and contrasts with the blue of the sky.

Thermal pools at Hanmer SpringsHanmer Springs is a small town set in a valley in the Southern Alps. It is famous (duh!) for the hot springs. A set of thermal pools that have been developed into a Spa and tourist attraction. You can sign up for treatments at the spa or, as we did, just go and have a laze and a soak in the 15 open air pools with waters of varying temperatures (most of them very pleasantly warm, that is up to 42C). There is a mix of natural sulphur pools, aqua therapy pools and filtered water pools, some have fountains or waterfalls for variety and effect. There was also some water slides for those of us (i.e. me) who a) are unable to sit still for two minutes without fidgeting and b) are still a big child at heart!

For children of all agesThe time in the springs also gave us the opportunity to reflect back on our earlier whale watching – the driving in between the two activities makes it hard to keep in mind it was only just this morning. We also are starting to think about our itinerary for North Island. We only have one week (actually only 6 nights) and there is a lot to cover – more mountains, more wine and more hobbits to name but three. Decisions, decisions!


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4 Responses to Day 162: A Whale Of A Time

  1. If you want to recreate the whale from the air experience you could stand on our step ladders while john lies face down in the stream blowing bubbles.
    Please come back soon there is a lot of work to do

  2. Is having John face down in the stream a personal fantasy then?

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