As much as I love being in the mountains, I love being by the sea, and as much as I love travelling, I love cetaceans and spotting them in the wild. Not only have I been fortunate enough to travel in 6 continents, but I’ve also had the privilege of spotting wild dolphins and whales in 5 of them. Last August, I took the opportunity to make the most of an off-season deal on a whale watching trip in my home country of New Zealand, and so, despite an unsavoury looking weather forecast, I headed up north from Christchurch to Picton, the gateway to the Queen Charlotte Sound.
I had things to do at home and as the weather wasn’t looking that flash, I didn’t set off till late. Following the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, State Highway 1 (SH1) has changed quite a bit where it reaches the coastline south of Kaikoura. The roadworks meant the drive north was longer than it used to be, but it was fascinating to see the extent of the repairs that had taken place, and I found myself driving over brand new land that had been reclaimed from the sea. I arrived in Picton in the darkness, checked into my motel and set off in search of dinner. There’s not a lot of exciting choice for eating out in Picton but I found somewhere with space and ordered a Caiparinha, a drink that conjoured up a lot of memories about my time in the Galapagos Islands.
It was dry but overcast the next morning, and I had to be down at the pier early for the E-Ko Tour which would take me out through the sounds in search of humpback whales. I’ve been lucky enough to spot my favourite species of whale off the coast of 5 different countries, and I’ve also never been on a whale-watching trip and failed to spot one, so I was excited to add country number 6 but nervous that this could be the first failed spot. None-the-less, the steel sky and low clouds actually created a hauntingly beautiful scene, and in the end I was happy enough to just get out on the water.
We didn’t have to travel far to find some activity. Some Australasian gannets, one of my favourite sea bird species were bobbing on the surface and a little further ahead some more were diving into the water and in between, the arched backs of dusky dolphins broke the still water’s surface. The dolphins came right up to and under the boat, popping up all around us as they rounded up the fish below the surface. There was plenty to see no matter where you stood on the boat, and we bobbed around for a while until the dolphins and birds began to dissipate. We cruised slowly around the vicinity watching the stragglers as they left, eventually being passed by the Interislander ferry as it headed into port.
As part of the tour we headed towards the mouth of the sound, stopping at the remains of the Perano whaling station, an eerie remnant to the days when the whale watching nation was a whale hunting nation. In fact, the hunting of the migrating humpback whales in the Cook Strait, like so many places around the World, led to their near local extinction. Now though, in an ironic twist, some of the ex-whalers became whale spotters, trading their harpoons for log books, their skills making them useful for scientific studies into the species’ return to the local waters. The whaling station was a conglomerate of rusting metal: large vats where blubber and oil were heated, rendered or stored. The smell in its day must have been foul. Even with the photographs on the wall of the hut and the video that we watched, it was hard to imagine what this place was like in full swing, and as a cetacean lover, it is hard to fathom how the days of whale hunting are not that far behind us. This particular whaling station closed only 54 years ago.
A light drizzle began to fall as we waited to board our boat again. The Bluebridge ferry, the other inter-island ferry, turned into the channel south of Arapawa Island, and before long we were out on the water again, heading for the Cook Strait. The rain thankfully never got heavier than a drizzle, but alas despite zooming up the South Island’s Cook Strait coast as far as Glasgow Bay, we saw no whales and for the first time ever, I failed to get a whale sighting on a whale watching trip. I was rather disheartened when we eventually returned to the channel after a long time bobbing on the Strait’s waters.
As we headed back to Picton though, we happened upon some dusky dolphins again and this was enough to cheer me up. Dusky’s are social and playful and were happy to show off around the boat. I would have happily bobbed around out there for hours if they were prepared to hang around with us. Eventually though we had to head back to Picton. It remained grey overhead, but that didn’t stop me stretching my legs along the waterfront at Picton, looking out at the view with the ferries in the port.
After lunch in a local cafe, it was time to head home to Christchurch. Reaching Kaikoura, I was tired, so drove out to the Peninsula to take a break. Hauled out on the boardwalk near the car park was a large New Zealand fur seal, snoozing away, mostly oblivious to the numerous people posing near it to take photographs. Despite the sign though, a few times people insisted on getting too close, jumping in fright when the seal barked in their direction. I had been watching it from the seat of my car, but I decided to head down onto the rocks on the seaward side of the peninsula to stretch my legs a little. It was also overcast here too, and a little cold, but I took some time to watch another fur seal that was sitting up on some rocks across a channel from me. I’m a major wildlife enthusiast, and am always excited to see these marine mammals no matter how many times I spot them. After I’d got my fill as the light was lowering, it was time to head back on the road and travel south, negotiating the roadworks and joining the crowds on their return to the city ahead of a new week of work.