We were so fortunate that SH-1 between Picton and Kaikoura had just recently re-opened a couple of weeks prior to our drive. Our eight-hour drive dramatically dropped to just under two hours.
The Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016 was 7.8 magnitude and its wake of destruction was unprecedented. If you are interested here are some before and after photos of the area. Before and after photos Researchers describe the quake as “the most complex earthquake every studied.” Kaikoura is a small coastal town renown for marine life- whales, dolphins, and seals. Its tourism was devastated with the earthquake since it was isolated from Picton/Blenheim and Christchurch. The Kaikoura reef that supports the famed marine animals may never recover. Reef Damage The intersection of the Seaward Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean make it a perfect home dolphins and whales. Underwater shelves and canyons mix hot and warm currents creating this marine mecca. Several varieties of dolphins make this area home- Hector’s dolphins (the smallest dolphin), Dusky dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, Common dolphin, and Orca (the largest dolphin). An individual pod can number from 100-800 in these areas. Whales that can be seen include Pilot whales, Humpback whales, Blue whales, Southern Right whales, Shepherd’s Beaked whale, Fin whale, and Sperm whales. Kaikoura has been named “whale watching capital of NZ” with Giant Sperm Whales being the star. There are also 13 species of Albatross, 14 varieties of Petrels and 7 types of Shearwater seabirds. And seals. Kaikoura is also home to the Ohau Point Sanctuary, the country’s largest fur seal breeding colony; thousands of seals can be seen lounging on the rocks that hug the coastline.
And of course, miles of coastline hiking. We headed out for a hike just after checking into our motor lodge since we only had one full day in Kaikoura and that was reserved for the dolphins. The Peninsula Walkway crosses over the clifftop of the peninsula with coastal views on one side and mountains on the other. We had seen seals while driving into Kaikoura and were able to spot others on the rocks. There were signs placed along with walk provide historical and wildlife information. The hike was well-marked and not technically challenging. We walked nearly 5 miles with the E&S before dropping them off at the motor lodge. Stephen and I continued another couple of miles since we left our car at the carpark.
We came for the dolphins. Stephen and I swam with dolphins in Kaikoura during our first trip to NZ and it was a magical experience. We wanted E&S to experience it also, plus we have been telling them of the experience for years! I was late to making reservations and we had to be wait listed. However, we lucked out! E&S were able to swim and I was able to accompany as an observer. From my recollection, the Dolphin Encounter was a small operation in 1997. It was located in a smaller wooden building at the edge of town with only one boat per trip. Not now. It has a large facility complete with cafe and gift shop. There are 3-4 boats per trip and several trips a day. It started with the formalities (payment, waivers, gear equipment) all in a very efficient fashion. All swimmers were geared up in wetsuit, flippers, snorkel and face mask. There was a short bus ride to the boat and then the hunt for dolphins began! We were on the water for about 45 minutes when the first pods were found. The idea is: gear up (flippers, face masks, snorkels), jump in the water, act like dolphins (sing underwater through a snorkel and perform somersaults), interact with dolphins, dolphins swim away, get out of the water, gear down (keeping wet suit on). Find dolphins again. Repeat. Although my memory may be skewed, E&S had much more water time with dolphins than we did 20 years ago. After about 1.5 hours of this routine and most of the swimmers being quite cold at this point and the water was becoming too rough for swimming so we switched gears. The crew helped everyone get out of wetsuits and warmed everyone up with hot chocolate and soup. Then we watched the dolphins on-board. Our return to shore was a bit longer and rougher than our outgoing trip. But the kids swam with dolphins! And none of us puked!