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Catching a rare glimpse of whales in New Zealand’s Kaikoura


Kaikoura in the South Island of New Zealand, is famous for its whale and dolphin populations. Over the past few weeks it’s been in the spotlight for a different reason – oil exploration.

After two months of backpacking and conservation work in New Zealand, throughout my travels I had heard that it is always worth looking out for whales. Humpback whales circle the entire country on their migration from the Antarctic to tropical waters, and I wanted to see them. Although I’d kept an eye out for them, I hadn’t seen any whales on our treks, so Kaikoura was the last hope.

Kaikoura is a small fishing town on the South Island. It’s a place where ocean currents converge; tectonic plates collide and then there’s the Hikurangi Trench which – in places –  reaches 3,750km in depth and is only 80km from shore. This unique geography is the perfect environment for many dolphin and whale species.

A baby seal, Kaikoura, New ZealandSurely, if we’re ever meant to see any whales, then it’ll be here of all places, where species are abundant. Nature seems strong yet ecosystems are vulnerable: from stunning, magnificent scenery to wild black sand beaches where glimpsing a dolphin – let alone a – whale is almost impossible nowadays. In Kaikoura, baby seals make a morning journey upstream to shelter in a waterfall while their mothers spend the day hunting at sea.

We joined a whale watching tour with a Maori guide and started to see all the right signs – albatrosses, endangered sea birds and high waves. The wind picked up and so did the waves – up to 2m high.  And at last three sperm whales came.

The timing had to be spot on as sperm whales can stay underwater for about an hour without having to come up for air. It was amazing to see them there, peacefully breaking the water’s surface and taking a breather. Only males can live here as only they have specially adapted bodies to dive down so deep for food. The females and their babies prefer to live in warmer waters.

Whales in the sea around Kaikoura, New ZealandIt was hard to believe that something so huge could be so graceful and calm. The whales seemed to be about three times the length of our boat. The whales would tank oxygen for a few minutes and then abruptly – but without even a splash – dive down again to feed.

These amazing creatures are specially adapted to live in the harshest of conditions. Despite this, human actions are putting them at risk. Kaikoura has been in the spotlight over the past few months following the proposal by Texas oil giant Anadarko to explore the coastline for oil and gas reserves, which has sparked outrage within the local community.

The locals’ biggest concerns are the threat to the area’s abundant marine life, which is also a big draw for tourists. They’re also worried by claims that the planned exploration is in the middle of a migration route for whales. As there are fault lines running along the coast of Kaikoura, there are also fears that deep-sea drilling could increase the risk of earthquakes. New Zealand’s energy and resources minister Simon Bridges has said that oil exploration could have “considerable benefits” for Kaikoura. But at what cost?

The whales I saw in Kaikoura are specially adapted to survive in harsh environments but they’re not prepared for the perils that off-shore oil drilling might bring. We need to speak up for them before it’s too late.

What do you think about the future of the whales in Kaikoura? Leave us a comment and we’ll post it on Emma’s blog.

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