Although named for its Crayfish, it is Kaikoura’s resident sperm whales that draw visitors by their thousand to this little fishing village. In a curious twist of irony, it was not so very long ago that the town’s economy was based on killing these same whales, and the last whaling station only closed as recently as 1964. Times have fortunantly changed since then. These days a local Maori-run company called ‘WhaleWatch’ takes thousands of tourists out to view the whales. Only a few years ago Kaikoura was beset with unemployment and social problems. A local Maori leader, Bill Solomon persuaded four families to put their homes up as collateral to buy an inflatable boat to take people to see the whales and earn a bit of cash. That was back in 1989, now hundreds of thousands of visitors come here every year to see the whales, and swim with the dolphins.
An incoming storm was forecast, and having moved our trip forward to an early 7am start, we joined our fellow passengers to watch a safety video at the disused railway station that is WhaleWatch‘s home, before setting off. The weather was deteriorating as our boat launched over a barrage of ever increasing waves, my stomach flew and free-fell as we bounced through the waters. I noticed with envy that the captain and pilot’s comfy black leather chairs were also hydraulically supported. Looking out over Pacific, the horizon see-sawed horribly as our pilot followed the whale calls through the ships hydrophone. ‘Kia Ora, welcome to WhaleWatch’, an animated young Maori woman introduced herself cheerfully and without loosing her footing, the boat pitching and rolling, and proceeded to tell us of the history and geography of Kaikoura.
Accompanied by a high-tech flat television screen of computer simulations, we took a ’virtual’ dive beneath the waters, demonstrating how Kaikoura sits on the edge of a one thousand metre deep canyon, caught between two converging currents pushing rich nutrients to the waters surface. It’s these conditions that provide a rich feeding frenzy for the giant squid, sperm whales, seals, and pods of dolphins that reside so close to the mainland.
We were told, that on average, a sperm whale spends forty-five minutes submerged beneath the water before surfacing to breathe for another ten minutes. We would have to be quick. The onboard radar flickered into life and soon we were adjusting our direction to rendez-vous with our first whale, carefully approaching from behind its floating grey mass, glistening in the water, so as not to disturb it. Climbing onto the stern of the deck, cameras were unpacked from cases, lens caps unscrewed and fingers poised on buttons, as the whale quickly submerged and with a dramatic flick of its enormous fin, vanished beneath the waters surface to a chorus of awed silence and clicking cameras. Where was he diving too? Sperm whales are the deepest diving whales on earth and have been known to reach a depth of up to three thousand metres, feeding on amongst other things the reclusive giant squid, no snacking on tiny sea plankton for these fellas.
It had been a breathtaking moment, but we were as close to the whales as you’d want to be. Swimming with the whales is not recommended, as our guide explained. “We pulled one guy out of the water a while back. He seemed fine at first, a little stunned but ok. Some days later, his health deteriorated, and was admitted to hospital. His internal organs were bruised and had suffered terrible damage. We used to think that the whales only used their sonar for communication and navigation, but it seems their echo is powerful enough to stun, or even kill smaller creatures that come too close and are seen to be a threat. Anyway, the bloke died a few weeks later”.
With the waves becoming increasingly turbulent and the deck awash with sea spray, I was beginning to wonder about the state of my own internal organs as we left the whales behind. Pausing briefly to look at a family of seals and their pups basking on a rocky outcrop, the captain accelerated away, so that we might spot a dusky dolphin or two.
The following morning, the weather hadn’t improved, yet despite the turbulent waters, our Dolphin Encounter Experience was still on. Issued with a damp but thick neoprene wetsuit I pulled myself into my suit with some difficulty, before flip-flopping into a crowded room to watch an introductory safety video. The film was instructive, a professional diver patiently explained how to fit a snorkel without strangling oneself. We listened attentively as we were informed that “the dolphins arent there for our entertainment, or to amuse us. If they want to play, they’ll hear the sound of the boat and follow us. We have to explain this to everyone because this is not an aquarium and we have no control over the dolphins, if they aren’t interested they’ll swim on and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Wearing our comedy latex suits and oversized flip-flops, we humans did have one trick up our sleeves. “If you want to help attract their attention, we’ve discovered that dolphins react well to sound, try whistling and singing through your breathing apparatus and if the dolphins aren’t amused, well, you’ll certainly laugh at one another!” We already looked rather ridiculous as we trooped out of the tour office, flip-flopping onto the coach like over-sized penguins in our wet suits.
“When we give the call, move to the back of the boat, lower your legs into the water, and carefully slip into the water. Don’t jump in, or you’ll scare the dolphins away and you won’t make many friends with your fellow passengers, and whatever you do, don’t get in the water until we say, or you’ll get diced by the propellers!”
Dropping gently into the chilly waters, the neoprene suit was life-savingly warm, but my gloveless hands soon felt the sharp coolness of the temperature. With a few strokes to warm up, I swam as far as I could away from the haphazard splashes of my fellow divers. Immersing my snorkelled face into the water, it wasn’t long before a shape darted quickly past my field of vision. The water was murky and dark, and I couldn’t see further than a few feet in front of me. Concerned for a moment that I wouldn’t be able to see anything, I ducked my head into the water and a dark shadow swept past me. My face submerged and eyes wide open, within a few short moments I was surrounded by grey smooth figures curiously circling around me, their white bellies flitting through the water with an easy grace.
A single inky eye watched me with apparent interest, before gliding past. They swam teasingly close and despite our instructions, I couldn’t resist casually stretching out my arms to swim towards one, the dolphin effortlessly maintaining his short distance. Tiring of circling around me, a pair of dolphins plunged deeply into the abyss below, twisting and touching for a fleeting moment. It turned out that this pod of dolphins were ‘on heat’, and that I had witnessed some carefree dolphin sex.
Unlike many creatures that mate for life, these rather frisky dusky dolphins often copulate with several partners in the course of an hour. it’s a lifestyle that would make Hugh Heffner jealous. It also explained why the dolphins were so curious - they were flirting! Perhaps realising that their attentions weren’t going to be consummated, the dolphins dispersed and I found myself swimming around, dizzy from this close encounter. To attract their attention, I attempted to sing though my snorkel which I discovered isn’t an easy thing to do, especially with my ears half-full of water. “Here, fisheeeee, fisheeeee, here fisheeee, fish”, I gurgled. It wasn’t really a song, and as anyone would tell you, dolphins aren’t even fish, but it seemed to work. From behind me, I heard the approaching sound of a high pitched clicking, and with a manically comic “hee-hee-hee”, a dusky dolphin quickly darted past. As the dolphins moved on, an alarm called from the boat to re-board, where we followed the pod, and returned to the water to continue the experience. Called from the waters for the final time, I was sorry to leave this other world behind, despite beginning to lose the feeling in the tips of my fingers.
Sipping a hot chocolate, having dispensed with our freezing wetsuits, we each sat with great grins painted across our faces as a spectacle of dusky dolphins darted around the boat, acrobatically leaping through the air. Following the boat whilst leaping from the waves, the dolphins were born performers, and seemed competitive amongst themselves, each attempting to outperform the other with increasingly ambitious back-flips. One pulled an acrobatic vertical leap, before twisting in the air, and landing in the water with a dramatic slap. Apart from the fun of it, it seems likely that the dolphins were performing to impress a mate. I made a mental note to take up acrobatics at the nearest opportunity, I figure it has to be worth a try.