Kaikoura is synonymous with whale watching and a must visit attraction in New Zealand. However, there are certain things that you should know before booking a whale watch tour.
Whale watching in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a lovely small town on the Pacific coast that is known for one thing, Sperm Whales. These giants hunt just off coast of Kaikoura because cold nutritious water from Antarctica meets the warmth of the Pacific here, generating an abundance of sea life. Additionally, the continental shelf is very short outside Kaikoura and already at 1 nautical mile outside the harbour, the sea depth reaches around 1600m which is perfect spawning depth for giant squid, the favourite food of Sperm whales.
Giant Sperm Whales in Kaikoura
There are a handful Sperm whales outside Kaikoura, all of them are male because females prefer warmer waters. These males hang around Kaikoura all year and are practically seen on every tour. Whale Watch Kaikoura says the probability of seeing at least one whale is 95% on each cruise, which is very impressive. The captain of each whale watching boat locates the whales using underwater hydrophones that pick up the very loud clicking sounds that whales use to communicate as well as locate their prey during hunting.
Blue whales, Dolphins and Humpback Whales
Besides Sperm whales which are almost always seen, tours sometimes also come across humpback whales, blue whales and Southern Right whales during their seasonal migration to/from the Antarctic. Dolphins are also almost always seen up close during the tours.
Advance and Last Minute Booking with Whale Watch Kaikoura
During the New Zealand summer months and public holidays, it is advisable to book tours well in advance since whale watching in Kaikoura is a very popular tourist attraction. During shoulder seasons like spring and autumn, booking two or three days in advance is usually enough to secure a spot. However, even if a tour is fully booked, there is still the possibility of making it onboard. By calling Kaikoura Whale Watch, you may can put yourself on a standby list. Usually, tour groups that has reserved a lot of tickets will find that they don’t need all of them or some poor individual who has booked will not make it in time because Kaikoura is a long drive away from just about everything.
Whale Watch Tours are often Cancelled
One thing to watch out for is tour cancellations and this happens rather often. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and if the weather conditions are bad, tours will be cancelled. However, even if the weather is not so bad that the tour is cancelled, you may still want to consider re-booking. Visibility is severely hampered by rain and fog and so is your ability to see whales. Also, the whale watching boats are small and if it is not a calm sunny day, the sea gets very choppy. Try watching dolphins when you have to hold on to the boat with two hands while it rocks violently in the waves, taking photos is almost impossible. If you choose to go on a tour in sub-optimal weather, a sea-sickness pill is your friend and they are available in the Kaikoura Whale watch gift shop. Several people vomited onboard during the tour we went on, one teenager vomited all over his mother and also splashed Karo with some vomit.
Besides bad weather, tours may also be suddenly cancelled because the Sperm Whales have left the area. Apparently, the whales tend to leave Kaikoura for a week or two around April and sometimes during other months as well. Â This happened to us too. The last whale was spotted swimming out to open ocean, two days before our arrival and later we found out that they came back two weeks after we had left Kaikoura.
What to do in Kaikoura while waiting for your Whale watch tour
Should your Whale tour be rebooked because of bad weather or absence of whales, there are still plenty of other things to do in Kaikoura.
There is a lovely seal colony full of sleepy Fur seals just outside the city center. We had seen lots of sea lions up close outside Dunedin but only spotted Fur seals from afar at Milford Sound. We kept a healthy distance but some Korean tourists got really close to the sleeping seals for selfies, which is not recommended.
There is also a lavender farm if you happen to be in the region during summer. The museum is supposedly also nice and there is a small Aquarium.
Besides the Whale watch tour, there is also a Dolphin encounter tour, an Albatross encounter tour and a Seal swim tour. These lovely creatures don’t leave Kaikoura so you can always see them if the weather permits it. However, you will probably see lots of Albatrosses and Dolphins during whale watching too… But since these tours are focused on particular animals, you will see more of them and linger longer with them and that could be worth it, depending on your interests.
Vegan Food and Dessert in Kaikoura
There is a big New World supermarket in Kaikoura for those who wish to cook. We were excited to find that there is a nice organic restaurant with vegan options. However, Hislop’s Cafe is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so we cannot offer any review of their food and cakes. We did find a sorbet place in the center to satisfy Karo’s sweet tooth.
Where to stay in Kaikoura
The best accommodation alternative for campervans is without a doubt Top10. The facilities have a high standard and there is the option of booking a hot bath for free in a large wooden barrel to heat up in the evening.
Our Kaikoura Experince
The waters around Kaikoura are rich indeed. Already from the car on the Christchurch-Kaikoura road, Karo spotted dusky dolphins playing in the water and Fur Seals on the rocks. However, after arriving at the Whale watch center, we found that our tour had been cancelled. The whales had left the region to hunt elsewhere. We were rebooked to the early morning cruise, the next day so we spent the afternoon walking through the small town center and along the beach to the seal colony.
The next morning, our Whale watch tour sailed despite light rain and rough sea. We saw penguins and seals in the water and Albatrosses flying overhead. Then came the dolphins, both Dusky and Hector Dolphins. They love playing in the surf that is generated by our boat. The Dusky Dolphins even put up a show and jumped out of the water.
Our Captain used a Hydrophone to listen for whale communication. Sound travels really far underwater and Sperm whales are very loud. However, despite going to three different locations, there were no signs of any whales. Our tour ended, we were refunded 80% of the ticket price and all subsequent cruises were cancelled for that day. We decided to leave Kaikoura rather than to stay and wait for what maybe weeks before the whales returned.