Thursday, April 23, 2015

Crossing Cook’s Strait to South Island & the Whales

New Zealand is made up of two islands: North and South. They are separated by the infamous Cook’s Strait. At least from a sailor’s point of view it is infamous. When some very experienced sailors sailing with us announced that they were changing their plan about sailing around North Island and land cruising instead, we knew it was not a place for us to sail either!

The easiest way to get to South Island is by ferry across Cook’s Straight. There are two ferry companies (maybe even owned by the same family like the ferries in Auckland) and we chose the Interislander. It is a convenient link for both foot and vehicle traffic. Since we had the camper van, it was perfect for us.

I was amazed at the size and number of vehicles they put on the ferries: train cars, double semi-trucks, cars with trailers, motor homes, campers of all sizes and shapes, motorcycles and bicycles. Amazingly, it still floated! They have nice lounges and café areas where you can relax and enjoy the 3.5 hour ride. There are ten or more ferry crossings a day from Wellington to Picton or Picton to Wellington. We had a reservation on the 7:30 AM ferry so we were up an out of the hotel very early.
Looking for whales and other sea life.

Once on the South Island, we began our journey to the southeast to Kaikoura, the home of Whale Watch Kaikoura. The drive along the coast was much like Highway 1 in Northern California – windy and winding and hugging the mountain on one side and the cliffs to the sea on the other. We had a 7:30 AM Whale Watch tour booked for the next day.

In order to protect the natural habitat of the sea life including the whales that come here from the north for the season, Whale Watch Kiakoura is the only one allowed to host the tours. It is an award-winning NZ nature-based tourism company owned and operated by the indigenous
Kati Kuri people of Kaikoura, a Maori sub-tribe of the island’s larger Ngai Tahu Tribe.

The company was formed in 1987 as a way to bring income to the declining economy of the area and its people. Since their ancestor Paikea had journeyed to a new life on the back of the whale Tohora, it seemed appropriate for Paikea’s descendants to once again ride on the back of a whale to a new life.
They have several of these catamarans in the fleet.
Through personal sacrifices, home mortgages and effort, the Kati Kuri founders secured a loan to start the business which has grown from small inflatable boats to larger catamarans with upper decks for viewing. They have also built and marina for the fleet. It has become one of New Zealand’s premier tourist attractions. Paikea and Tohora still form the symbolic center of Whale Watch representing the spiritual bond between the human world and the natural world. And it speaks of possibilities that reveal themselves when the world off nature is revered rather than exploited.
The Orcas swam in pods of three or four. There were
several pods swimming calmly around the boat. Amazing!
The tour began with a video presentation based on Marine Wildlife. Then you board a bus to ride to the harbor where you board the boat. Three boats went out at about the same time, going in different directions in search of marine life. The boat was staffed with a Captain, Health & Safety Officer, Watch Keeper and a Narrator. The Narrator gave us a lot of information while we were traveling to the edge of the area where we might find whales.

This area is known as the Kaikoura Canyon and is at the edge of the continental shelf where there is a vertical drop of about 1,000 meters. The Kaikoura Canyon is five kilometers wide at the widest point and is over 1,600 meters deep. It is one of the few places in the world where the edge of the continental shelf is so close to land. It is the largest submarine canyon in the southern hemisphere and forms part of a series of canyons which whales use on their migrations between feeding and breeding grounds.

There is a wonderful food chain here in the subtropical convergence. The flow of water currents cause warm and cold water to collide with nutrients coming up from the Antarctic. The microscopic plant Phytoplankton provides food for tiny organisms like Zooplankton and krill, which are eaten by squid and small fish. These are then eaten by larger fish, birds, seals and dolphins, sharks and whales. So this nutrient-rich area provides a major link in the food chain.
The main focus of the tour is on the Giant Sperm whale, whose dive time is between 40-60 minutes. This means that they will surface for a short time and then dive again staying down for that length of time. Like many things in life, timing is important! You have to be patient and wait for it to surface. We were not able to spot any whales so our Captain heard from one of the other boats that they had found a Giant Sperm whale and it was about to dive again.

That meant that we had 35-40 minutes to change locations so we could view the Giant Sperm when it surfaced again. As we changed direction to head there, we came upon a large pod of Orcas! The crew was more excited than we were as they had not seen any Orcas for many months. In all, I counted 13 Orcas swimming around us in small groups of three and four. One lone – probably an older male – was away from the pod. He was probably scouting out the territory for the others. It was really exciting.

After 20 minutes of enjoying the Orcas, we needed to move toward the Giant Sperm. When we got to the area, he (most of the ones in this area are male) had surfaced and was resting on top of the water. He was not nearly as lovely to look at as the Orcas, but we watched him blow a number of times. 
The Sperm Whale was hard to see on the surface, but you
 could see him blow every few minutes. The shorter the
time between blows means he is getting ready to dive.

Our Captain placed us right behind the whale, knowing that when he breeched we would have the best view – and we did! The whale itself was hard to see as it blended in with the water, but when he lifted his hind, I said, “Get the camera ready as he is going under!” And just them he flipped his tail and dove. Great shot! It made the day!

It was interesting to learn that the whales travel in small pods keeping several miles between them. They say that seeing more than two whales in a watch is a real bonus. Well, we hit the jackpot!

Around 80% of the world’s whale and dolphin species migrate past this coastline so it is possible to see a variety of marine life here: Blue, Fin, Sei, Humpback, Minke, Pilot, Orca and Southern Right Whales. Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, Southern Right Whale Dolphins, Elephant Seals and Leopard Seals can also be seen in this area. Very commonly found here are Dusky and Hector Dolphins and the New Zealand Fur Seal. We learned that the reason the Fur Seal survives so well is that the whales don’t like to eat the fur or hair. They prefer the other types of seals!

The Sperm Whale starting to descend into the sea.

All in all, it was a great adventure! Then it was time to start our drive to Hanmer Springs. I had originally planned for us to go to Christchurch for a couple of days, but here was no room in any of the inns! So Plan B was to check out Hanmer Springs as it is the Number One Kiwi vacation spot! Must be good. And Larry was actually looking forward to more hot mineral pools!

The Sperm Whale will stay under for about an hour.

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