Whale Watching in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Kaikoura whale watching tour
Kaikoura, New Zealand

One of the few places on Earth where the mountains meet the sea is in Kaikoura, New Zealand. This picturesque town on New Zealand’s southern island can be found nestled between the snowy peaks and vast shoreline on the country’s eastern coast.

Kaikoura is well-known for its whale populations, since sperm whales live here year round. Almost all who venture to this small coastal town take part in some form of whale watching. Whales are seen so close to the shore here due to a 35 mile underwater channel that hugs the coastline. This ocean channel is up to 4,000 feet deep and is connected to a another deep ocean channel system that heads into the Pacific Ocean.  Because this deep channel is so close to the shore, a unique sea current is created, which feeds an abundance of marine life. The bounty of fish and sea life feeds the enormous 100,000 pound whales, beckoning them here.

Kaikoura whale watching
Ocean topography near Kaikoura

To see these magnificent animals in Kaikoura, you can either book a whale watch cruise or flight. When my family and I toured this past June, we opted for the whale watch cruise, hoping to get a little closer to the whales than a sea plane. So, we booked a morning tour with Whale Watch Kaikoura. As instructed, we arrived at their building at the assigned check in time. Unfortunately, due to rough wintry seas, our morning cruise was cancelled. Staff bumped us onto the later cruise, but as luck would have it, the rough seas continued and our whale watch cruise was cancelled.

Whale Watch Kaikoura could have either booked us a cruise for another day, refunded our money (they only refund if the cruise is cancelled), or transfer our reservation to Wings Over Whales, which offers whale watching tours by plane. For no additional charge, they offered us a chance to see the whales from the air. Since they could book us on a plane tour within a couple of hours, we transferred our reservation to Wings Over Whales and headed to the Kaikoura airport.

Whale Watching Kaikoura
Wings Over Whales building at the Kaikoura airport

After arriving at the Wings Over Whales building, we were privately weighed, given a waist banded life-preserver, received safety information, and were given some interesting whale facts.

Whale Watching Kaikoura
Sediment visible in the water just off shore

The plane that took us out over the ocean was a small 8 seater plane. (A plane this small could cause issues for those with fears of flying or height anxiety!)  Once up in the air, I was surprised to see such an extreme difference in the color of the water not far from shore. This water must have been full of sediment, caused by the deeper canyon water getting pushed into the shallows, bringing a current full of debris and other sea matter.

It didn’t take long before our pilot found a whale on the water’s surface. From the sky, the whale looked like a large log floating on top.  We flew around for 30 minutes, viewing about 4 whales, each in a different location. It was remarkable to see the whales’ size and to see them shoot air from their blowhole. We were also fortunate to see one whale’s fluke as it dove under the water.

Whale Watching Kaikoura

I’m not sure if all whale watch pilots do this, but during our flight, our pilot did about 4 turns each way for a total of 8 circles around each whale. Each time he spotted a whale, we’d spin four times clockwise and four times counterclockwise. Each time he turned the plane, the plane tilted quite a bit, making me rather nauseous. Since I am prone to motion sickness, I probably should have taken some Dramamine ahead of time, but I had no idea this flight was going to make me nauseated. I pulled through, suffering from the conundrum of trying to enjoy the whales, despite my nausea and lightheadedness. I strongly recommend that people with any tendency for motion sickness to take some Dramamine before the flight!

When our pilot headed back to land, he flew over Kaikoura, giving us a wonderful view of the Kaikoura peninsula as well as the entire town.

Kaikoura Whale watching
The Kaikoura peninsula from the sky

Every whale watch tour is going to have various advantages and disadvantages. Initially, we chose the whale watching cruise to enjoy a 3 hour experience on the water.  However, a whale watch flight is in the air for only 30 minutes, with additional time for check-in and safety briefings. To some, this is a better option, allowing more time for other touring activities. Here’s a list of advantages and disadvantages for each kind of whale watch tour:

Benefits of Whale Watch Cruise

  • you’re likely to be physically closer to the whales than when you’re in the air, and able to see whales in more detail
  • boats find the whales with listening devices and have a high success rate
  • you’re on the water for a longer amount of time, so you’re likely to see other wildlife like dolphins and seabirds

Downsides of Whale Watch Cruise

  • cruise takes 3 hours, most of the time is simply traveling out to sea
  • you may not get a full appreciation of the size of the whale viewing from the boat
  • sea sickness/motion sickness can occur

Benefits of Whale Watch Flight

  • you can easily see the whales in the water from the air
  • flight is much shorter (30 min) than the cruise, allowing you to maximize your vacation time
  • you get a nice view of Kaikoura when taking off and landing

Downsides of Whale Watch Flight

  • the cost is much higher for a smaller amount of time viewing whales
  • you will not see any details of the whales since you’re in the air
  • sea sickness/motion sickness can occur
Whale watching Kaikoura
The only whale fluke we saw on our flight

All in all, we had a pleasant experience viewing the whales with Wings over Whales. The staff over at Whale Watch Kaikoura was also helpful, despite not being able to cruise with them. For my readers, I would recommend both Wings Over Whales and Whale Watch Kaikoura for any whale watching experience.

Seeing the whales from the air was definitely a good experience. I don’t know if whale watching would have been more enjoyable from a boat, but for us, it gave us more time to experience the town, which we also enjoyed. Fortunately, operators in Kaikoura provide various touring operations to satisfy tourists with all preferences!

If you ever venture out to southern New Zealand, Kaikoura and its whales are a wonderful site to see!

Happy Travels!


source: wikipedia.org, teara.govt.nz


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