Sunday, March 30, 2008

March 13, 2008 - Kaikoura

After our lackluster boat trip on Milford Sound, I opted out of doing a whale watch in Kaikoura. I figured that one of us spending $130NZ and being disappointed would be a much better outcome than both of us being disappointed to the tune of $230NZ. And I didn't have my heart set on seeing sperm whales, so I spent the afternoon wandering around town while Sten went on a whale watch. The text and photos below are here courtesy of Mata'irea's special marine biology corespondent, Sten Levin. If we ever go commercial and put ads on this site, I'll have to figure out how to cut him in on his share of the profits.
The tourist town of Kaikoura is built around a deep sea trench that just happens to come within a kilometer of the coast at this location. As a comparison if you were to set out from New York City you would have to go something like 60 miles out to the continental shelf to find water of similar depth. In Kaikoura, the deep waters combined with large cold water upwellings attract bachelor sperm whales, which can grow up to 20 meters long and weigh in at over 50 tons, in large numbers.

The local Maori have a monopoly on taking people out to see these whales, so I forked over my $130NZ (gulp) and headed for the bus that would transport us to one of the several purpose built whale watch catamarans. I was a little concerned prior to the whale watch, as the gift shop pictures were pretty bland when compared with what you might see from a trip to see a humpback or other such playful whale. After some woozy moments, we arrived on the whale grounds and almost immediately came upon a resting sperm whale.
These whales are here to hunt squid and as such spend their surface time resting up for another foray into the deep, a typical dive here being around 800 meters and lasting 40 plus minutes. After all this time hunting down deep it isn't surprising that the whales aren't too active while on the surface. In fact, they basically look like a very large log floating just at the surface. While they sit on the surface breathing, very little of the whale is visible above the surface and they are basically stationary. Every 40 or so seconds the whale would spout and after four or five minutes on the surface arch his back, show his tail and be gone back to the deep.
So the thrill of seeing sperm whales in Kaikoura is not so much about the actual viewing but actually seeing, in person and up close, the largest toothed predator on the planet.

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