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  • Craig Cooper Photography

A Marine Life Wonderland in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Have you always dreamed of having the opportunity to see Orca in their natural habitat, or swimming with wild dolphins as they surround you in every direction? If so, this small coastal town on the South Island of New Zealand might just be your dream destination.

Orca (Killer Whales) off the coast of Kaikoura, New Zealand.

I have always been fascinated by marine life, so much so that I would draw Orca (Killer Whales) all day long at school as a young boy, and I soon became known as the boy obsessed with whales. I have always felt a connection to whales and dolphins in a way that I can't fully comprehend or explain. There is something majestic, mysterious and captivating about these incredible mammals that enthralled me in so many ways. When we began to plan our trip to New Zealand, I instantly knew that a Kaikoura excursion must be on our itinerary.

More than 200 species of marine life can be found off the coast of Kaikoura, and this small coastal town is situated on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand, between Christchurch and Picton. It is world renown for the numerous species of whales that visit the coast, massive dolphin pods, and large Fur Seal colonies that gather along the shore.

Kaikoura is saturated by marine life mainly due to its position along the Indo-Australian continental shelf, which plunges to a depth of close to 1,000 meters not far off the coast of Kaikoura. As a result, warm and cold currents converge and cause nutrients to arise from the sea floor. These nutrients feed the plant life in the sea, which feeds small marine mammals, and ultimately these small marine mammals feed the larger marine mammals. This phenomenon makes Kaikoura the marine life wonderland it is known for.

Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where Sperm Whales are able to be seen year-round, and is a feeding ground for young male Sperm Whales who come to feed upon the abundance of food found in the nutrient rich waters. The beloved Orca are typically seen from October-March and are usually seen in pods from 6-12 individuals, and extravagant Humpback Whales are often seen in the winter months (June-August). The world's largest animal, the Blue Whale, is also able to be seen off the coast of Kaikoura, and is typically seen sporadically throughout the year. Other whale species that inhabit Kaikoura waters include the Southern Right Whale, Minke Whale, Long-Finned Pilot Whale, Pygmy Sperm Whale, Beaked Whale, and the Fin Whale. There are numerous tour companies that offer whale watching tours by boat, or by air if you would rather have an aerial view.

Numerous dolphin species also populate Kaikoura waters. Dusky Dolphins swim in highly social pods of hundreds of individuals, and Kaikoura is one of the few locations in the world where you can swim with these wild dolphins in their natural habitat. Hector's Dolphins are also commonly seen off the coast of Kaikoura, and are unique in that they are only found in New Zealand waters.

Our day in Kaikoura began with a scenic drive along the coastline, keeping an eye out for Fur Seals that line the shoreline. Within minutes, we spotted an immense number of seals frolicking along the rocks and beaches, and pulled over to take some photographs. I had never seen so many seals in one location. They were dotted all over the rocks for as far as the eye could see!

Aerial view of the rocky Kaikoura shoreline.

The road to Kaikoura follows the shoreline. Keep an eye out for Fur Seals!

Fur seals line the rocks.

Nap time for this guy!

Seal pup.

Pups frolicked along the beach.

For our day in Kaikoura, we decided to book a wild dolphin swim experience with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura ( Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura offered a 6:00 AM departure, 9:00 AM departure, or 1:00 PM departure. We decided to take the 1:00 PM departure in order to give us time to drive to Kaikoura from our accommodations outside of Christchurch. We arrived to Kaikoura early enough to enjoy the coastline views, observe the seals and have an early lunch at the Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura Cafe. There was also a very nice gift shop to explore while we waited for our tour departure.

Soon after finishing lunch, we were called back to get fitted for our wet suits and snorkel gear. After being fitted for all gear, we were then asked to watch an introductory video with information on Dusky Dolphins, how to safely swim with the wild animals, and the importance of respecting them in their natural environment.

We then boarded a bus and were transported to our vessel for departure. Boarding the vessel was an extremely easy process and before we knew it, we were on our way out to sea.

In preparation for our trip, I was cautiously optimistic about the possibility of seeing Orca since we were visiting during the time of year that Orca roam the waters of Kaikoura. Luckily enough, soon after departure the captain made an announcement of an Orca sighting and my adrenaline immediately began to rush. We headed to the bow of the vessel and witnessed a pod of about 10 whales.

The crew informed us that one particular whale, named Ben, was among the whales in the pod and is quite famous in New Zealand. Ben infamously became stranded on Mangawhai Beach in June 1997 and was successfully floated back to sea. A year later in 1998, Ben was unfortunately struck by a boat propeller, slicing his dorsal fin in half. Ben continues to travel the waters of New Zealand, and his unique dorsal fin allows him to easily be identified to this day.

Ben, a famous Orca whose fin was sliced in half by a boat propeller.

After spending some time with the Orca, we continued our journey to swim with the Dusky Dolphins. Looking out on the horizon and seeing hundreds of dolphins crashing through the waves is truly a sight to see.

As the crew prepared us for our swim, we were reminded to splash and make noise underwater in order to attract the dolphins, but it is important to not touch the dolphins. A moment later, I soon found myself fully submersed in the frigid water, encircled by dolphins in every direction. There are very little words to describe the feeling I had when I was swimming alongside these magnificent animals. It was an experience I will never forget!

View of the dolphins from the back of the boat before jumping in!

They were just as curious about me as I was of them.


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