We came from the west coast, over Arthur’s Pass, across the central spine of the Southern Alps. A spectacular drive through the mountains even if new roads have taken away the challenge and uncertainty of the old- the smell of hot brakes still lingered on the Otira Viaduct. Kaikoura is an old Kiwi trading town sitting astride a small peninsula. On a stunning afternoon, dramatic coastal cliffs overlook fur seals and reef heron occupying the watery, rocky strip dividing the sea from the land. But it is the sperm whales that bring the people to Kaikoura. Steep undersea ridges and the convergence of two currents, one warm from the north, the other cold, sweeping up from the Antarctic, combine to stir a feast of tiny creatures of the food chain quite unlike any other place on earth. The water is three thousand feet deep less than a mile offshore and the whales love it. Immature males gather for several years before moving to breeding grounds- they can be found here almost all year round. Sperm whales are massive, reaching sixty feet long and weighing 40 tonnes. One third of their body is in the head, containing the largest brain of any creature that has ever lived. Aoraki, a purpose built catamaran, uses GPS to log every sighting of a whale to plot patterns- science meets nature, but it’s still a big ocean. It was a real privilege then to meet four of the regulars visitors from the depths; one after another, basking and blowing at close quarters, until, with barely a ripple, the head rose imperceptibly, then disappeared slowly beneath the waves. A slight arch of the back and the massive flukes of the tail rose high out of the water in a final majestic plunge to the depths. A truly breathtaking sight, and to think that people still hunt the sea with exploding spears to slaughter these wild and gentle creatures. And not just whales- at the stern, cape petrels and mollymawk albatross wheeled overhead; while at the bow, hundreds of dolphins performed graceful acrobatics. The water was alive on all sides, right under the boat and diving through the bow-wave. How many there were- three, four hundred, it’s hard to be sure. Turning towards harbour in fading sunlight, faces were aglow with the pleasure and privilege of an extraordinary afternoon. Maybe the dolphins knew, they put on such a special display, but the whales and albatross were surely unmoved by our presence, allowing us just a momentary touch of their great wilderness.
Later, I sat in the front seat of a tiny helicopter- the pilot was not so young- ‘give me a nudge if you spot a white puff in the distance, my eyesight is not so good and it may be a whale blowing’. Well I did and it was, not once but twice, and the reward was to fly over these magnificent creatures, revealing their long bodies basking in the blue-green sea. We circled, clicking endlessly and watched each time they lifted those great flukes to dive gracefully to the depths. It was a rare privilege indeed.