Kaikoura

(back to The Alps/Arthur's Pass)

Friday, March 24, 2006 (continued)

Just before dark I rolled into Kaikoura. The weather was a little disappointing because it was too rainy to camp on the beach - and I was looking forward to pitching my tent on the beach. I ended up in this camping cabin in the photograph to the left called "The Hideaway". It wasn't the greatest - the microwave was broken, I could hear the traffic of the highway and I couldn't hear the surf... but it was warm and dry and private.

 

 

 

 

 

To the right is a photo of the cabins's interior. That was the entire thing - and it was a bit of a splurge. It served my needs quite nicely and was still only $14 US a night.

 

 

 

Saturday, March 25, 2006

I was exhausted after two days of mountain driving, it was a rainy morning, and my stuff was very unorganized. So I took the morning to get organized. It was still raining in the afternoon, so I spent the afternoon reading and being lazy. About 3 pm the rain let up, and the sun was trying to come out, so I decided to get out into the day.

My first stop was at the iSite in town. Once again, a good use of my time. I had already booked my whale watching and dolphin swimming a few days before - so the woman at the iSite suggested that I walk around by seal colony at the edge of town, so I drove down there. It was cool.

Everyone else was checking out the few seals that were sleeping closer to shore - shown in the photo to the left. All the seals were male bulls sunning themselves. They need the warmth of the rocks.

 

 

 

I saw a seal much further out on the rocks and headed towards him. It took a little while, because I had to go slow because my arches were hurting... but eventually I got out to him. I chatted to him a bit as I got close, to be sure I wouldn't surprise him. As I got closer he grunted at me and sat up, but I kept a good 30 yards away, and eventually he laid back down and let me hang out with him. He seemed okay with it, although he did reposition himself so he could keep me in sight. We sat like that for about 20 minutes, until some other tourists came along... too many tourists... getting too close. The photo to the right is him getting nervous with all the people around. He soon got up, waddled back into the surf and swam away. They are so awkward on land.

After my first buddy left, I went closer to land and checked out the seals there. The seal in the photo to the left also let me sit with him for a while... again, until too many people got too close. (Soon after this seal went back into the surf, I climbed up the hill behind him and took an amazing walk... more on that in a moment...) The photo below is of two people mesmerized as my second buddy waddled back to the surf and disappeared.

You know what was really interesting? Watching people as they watched the seals. There were signs everywhere warning people to stay 15-20 feet away. For the most part, people respected this. But like I say, people were mesmerized and a few were tempted to get a closer look... and if they got too close the seals let them know with a sort of barking noise, and sudden movement.

 

 

 

 

At one point, I saw a little boy go racing out among the rocks from the parking lot while his mom was helping his little sister out of the car. He was headed straight for one of the biggest bulls... I wasn't sure if the little boy saw the seal or not. The seals are very well camouflaged when they lie on the rocks and don't move because there are piles of seaweed the exact same color as the seals. So the seals sometimes look like just another pile of seaweed. Well, the seal suddenly made his presence known with a very loud bark and a wee bit of a lurch. That little boy stopped in his tracks and did not move for a long time until his mom caught up... even though the seal had laid back down almost right away. Sometimes communication requires no words...

After all the seals had gone back into the surf, I headed up a nearby hill to take a walk along the bluffs...

This walk was through one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen... I know I keep saying this country is beautiful... but this stopped me in my tracks at times... I didn't know which way to look - because there was beautiful views in every direction...

The sun was setting, and there was still a few storm clouds in the sky so the sunset was stunning. The colors of the setting sun made the color of everything.... richer. Even simple grass had a purple hue to it. And it was also interesting when the trail went right through a herd of grazing cows - they surprised me as much as I suprised them!

 

At one point, I was walking along a bluff with views of rocky beaches below on one side. And on the other side I could see snow-capped mountains tipped with the light of the setting sun... Sorry again to the folks with slow Internet connection, but I couldn't keep out any of the four photos below... I feel I actually captured some of the beauty in terms of color in these...

 

The dot of light out on that peninsula in the lower left photo of the four above photos is the beacon of a lighthouse... it was an incredible walk...

 

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Kaikoura means "to eat crayfish" in Maori. Crayfish are the same as lobster. The city of Kaikoura is situated at the mouth of a huge, and very deep, underwater canyon. The thermals keep the water warm so there are lots of nutrients there - which means food for lots of creatures of all sizes. So in addition to seals there are dolphins, birds, fish, lobsters... tons of wildlife... including whales! Whales need deep water to dive, and because the canyon is deep enough for them, Kaikoura is great for whale watching because it also still relatively close to land. That's why I was so excited to get to Kaikoura.

I woke up very early to get to the boat for the long-awaited whale watching trip. I was so excited about this. It was rough sea and they warned us seasickness might be a problem. But I was determined, so I took a couple of ginger pills, ate light, drank lots of water... and off we went on a relatively large boat - our sister boat is in the photo to the right.

The crew members were very casual about the possibility of people getting sick and encouraged people not to be shy, not run to the bathroom and miss a whale experience... just do what you needed to do right there in the bags provided in the cabin, or on deck - because they had seen it all. I started feeling sick even before we spotted the first whale. People were starting to actually GET sick in the row behind me. But I plugged my ears and tried to stay focused on the horizon. We spotted our first whale and everyone went out on the decks to get a look. You couldn't see much from the boat, as you can see in the photo below, but it was just neat knowing such a huge creature was RIGHT there.

How it works is whales rest on top of the water in between very long, very deep dives for food. Whale watching is trying to get to the whales that are resting on top of the water, and then wait to watch them dive. Our guide could kinda tell when the whale was about to dive and told us when to get our cameras out. It was amazing... they take a last deep breath, kinda arch their backs and down go their heads, and in a few seconds the tail comes up out of the water and then disappears under the water... what I thought was really cool was a few seconds after they disappeared, the water where they had been suddenly flattened out in a wide circle... that's the force of the tail from that first stroke. The guide said it's called a footprint - something that indicates where the whale had BEEN.

Our skipper seemed to be pretty good at finding and getting to resting whales. They can't use radar because that messes up the communication of some marine animals. Instead the boats communicate with each other by radio, and they use planes in the air to try and spot them. The skipper also used a speaker sort of device that he stuck underwater and he could turn it around in all directions and listen through headphones. It was interesting to watch his face as he did that... processing. His eyes would flit one direction or another, he didn't speak to anyone, he was very much on task - which was fine with me. The skipper managed to find us FOUR resting whales. The third of the four didn't do a deep dive, just a shallow dive so we didn't see the tail... he just kinda submerged like a submarine. But here are photos I got of the three going for deep dives...

During the beautiful walk the night before I met a man on the trail. I mentioned I was going whale watching the next day and he said he read that whale watching (by boat and plane) was bad for the whales. He said the young whales were dying because they dive too soon - before they've had a chance to rest enough. When the third one only did a shallow dive I was concerned that we had disturbed him. After the trip, I asked one of the crew member and she seemed surprised by the notion. She said "these are all old whales here"... which actually proved what the guy was saying... If all the young ones are dying, that would leave only the old... but what about after all the old ones die? I thought about doing a plane ride as well to see the whales from the air, but I decided to be satisfied with the boat trip... hopefully I didn't contribute to significant disturbance of these beautiful creatures.

My stomach was pretty upset after the whale watching, but I really wanted to make the most of my time. So I went back to the iSite and asked if they could book me for something seal related. Originally, I was hoping to SWIM with seals, but winter was coming and those trips weren't going out very much anymore - and the trips that were going were in the morning. But people were still giving kayaking trips with seals. So a quick booking, quick change of clothes, reorganization of gear and off I went to kayak with seals, which turned out to be really cool!

A storm came up while we were on the water, which was very interesting (and beautiful) to watch. Also, because of the cool weather most of the seals were not in the water because it was more comfortable for them to lay on the warm rocks - so we got good looks at them. There was one seal in the water and he was very interested in us. It was almost like he was messing with us. We'd spot him, and paddle over to where he'd been... but then he was gone... and his head would poke up again back where we'd just been, so we'd paddle back over there... teehee. Eventually we managed to be in the same place he was, and he checked us out for quite a while, came right up to our kayaks. He was so graceful in the water. And those watery, dark brown eyes are HUGE in the water... a bit spooky actually. I guess, their eyes help seals see underwater.

It was difficult to get the camera in and out of the water-tight bags, and with the storm building the sea was getting rough and I needed to concentrate on paddling because when I didn't I kept splashing Matt, our guide, who was behind me in my kayak. Besides, I wanted to make the most of the experience and really look at the seals and birds and stuff. As a result, I don't have many photos from when we were on the water. But this one above with the seals and gulls turned out nice.

 

 

Because the trip was last minute, it was almost just me and the guide. But then a couple from Brazil joined us at the last minute. They were really nice, and our guide, Matt, was really nice. Here's a photo of me with the kayaks below and a photo of Matt with the kayaks to the right.

I really wasn't feeling well after the seal kayaking... seasickness, but I kept it together. I had a night to settle my stomach down...

 

Monday, March 27, 2006

The next morning, again, I got up early and went out hoping to swim with dolphins. I was trying to prepare myself for more disappointment if the dolphins just weren't interested in us. My confidence was building as the crew geared us up with full wet suits, fins, masks, snorkels.. the guy gearing me up even gave me an extra layer that was kinda like a dickey that attached between my legs. He said it would help me keep warm, which was something I was worried about. And when they were deciding on what size mask to give me, the girl asked if I could see without my glasses. My prescription is kinda complicated, so in order to best answer her question I asked why she was asking. Turns out they had a few prescription masks! I wasn't sure which would be better so they let me take one with a prescription and one without. I was SO geared up... I took my ginger pills, drank lots of water and hoped for the best.

Before we went out they showed us a video about what to expect. Besides safety tips and explanations about how the process was going to work, there were also tips to attract the dolphins' attention and hold it. Like in Whakatane, these were wild dolphins and they do NOTHING to entice them - nothing at all. It is completely up to the dolphins whether they want to check us out or not. The video suggested 'singing' to them in the snorkel, and swimming in circles with them to maintain eye contact... similar to the suggestions I got for the dolphin swim in Whakatane. There were a few new suggestions though, trying to swim like a dolphin by holding your arms to your side and slapping the water with your body. Quite a few people laughed outloud when there were people demonstrating all these suggestions in the video. I didn't find it funny, I was on a mission to do whatever I could to make the most of this. I wasn't going to be self-conscious about anything. But I tell you what, once we got out there EVERYONE lost all inhibitions... folks did whatever it took to get the attention of the dolphins. I did more swimming than observing others, but the little I did observe was pretty hilarious to watch... and hear.

We were finally on the boat and heading out to hopefully find a group of dolphins to swim with. They warned us that it was possible that we might not even see dolphins... but we definitely did! The photo on the left is what I saw all around the boat... and for every one that you see on the surface of the water getting a breath of air.. there are another 4 or 5 below the surface swimming, feeding, etc. That means there were HUNDREDS of dolphins in this group.

 

Oh, and they were mating. We knew this because at least three times a minute we'd see a dolphin fly up into the air and do a flip, or a twist, or slap his body on the water with all his might. It's the males trying to get the attention of females for mating. The guide said a male will do the same trick as long as it works for him. There was one guy who would jump and do a twist and slap his body on the water... jump and do another twist and slap his body on the water.... jump and do yet another twist and slap his body on the water. All three twists happened within three seconds and were his 'dance'... he might do two or three dances one after the other, and then we wouldn't see him for a while. Then a few minutes later he'd do the same three twist 'dance' again, two or three times... then disappear. The guide said that in between his 'dances' he was mating with a female he'd attracted. He was workin' it! And it was workin for him, apparently. Other males just did a flip... but there was someone in the air at least every ten seconds... all around us! They were impossible to catch on film. Although if you were to zoom in on the image above you would see a dolphin in the middle of a flip way in the background. I didn't even know I'd caught it until after I was back in the US.

As we pulled up into the midst of the dolphin group, there was another boat with swimmers in the water nearby. Our guide pointed them out commenting that that's how we were going to be in a minute. If you didn't know they were trying to swim with dolphins you would've thought they were absolutely insane. Each of the 20 people was singing a different tune into their snorkel at the top of their lungs... they were very loud even though they were about 100 yards away. They were splashing about as if they were having a seizure or something. Some people in our group giggled nervously... personally I couldn't wait!

Okay after we spotted dolphins and we were getting ready to go in the water, I left my camera onboard in my bag, got geared up... and I was on a mission from that point on. I didn't even try to take photos while in the water because I didn't want to be distracted. I knew from my Whakatane experience that there is so much to think about already... breathing, attracting the dolphins, maintaining their interest, safety concerns... I knew taking photos as well would be too much. Besides, I didn't want to experience it all through a lens. As a result, I don't have photos from the actual swimming, but I've scanned a couple of postcard photos to give you an idea of what I saw... This photo to the right is what the dusky dolphins of Kaikoura look like underwater (Copyright: Kiwi Vista Company Limited ). They were that concentrated in numbers alot of the time. And they move SO fast without much effort - it's amazing! As soon as you focused on one... it was gone out of sight into the shadow of the sea... but then two more were right there... darting under and around you... darting among each other... it was non-stop movement.

I went in the water as much as I could. The first time I tried swimming with dolphins in Whakatane I tried diving as far underwater as I could to attract the dolphins, but that was very tiring because even a half wetsuit (like the one I used in Whakatane) is meant to be buoyant and help you float if something goes wrong. So diving just in a half wetsuit wiped me out in Whakatane, and I knew trying to dive in full wetsuit would be even harder, so I didn't make that mistake this time in Kaikoura. I just planned to stay on the surface and focus on looking down and singing.

This photo to the left isn't of me, of course, it's from a postcard. Like I say, I didn't dive underwater... but I was geared up like that, and the dolphins got that close, and often much much closer. (Copyright: Dennis Buurman - Dolphin Encounter).

In Whakatane the bottle-nosed dolphins weren't interested in us that day - not so with the dusky dolphins of Kaikoura. As soon as I got in the water I saw a few swim by underneath me... it was INCREDIBLE. (Shesh, I need to find new descriptors - I bet everyone is sick of hearing the same ones over and over... but it WAS incredible...) We had to get back into the boat once or twice to move back into the group... I can't remember how many times we got in and out of the water - it's all a blur. But we spent a ton of time in the water and very little out of the water. I started singing whatever I could think of to hopefully attract the dolphins... I sang "Chicago" to them... and "I Love You Truly"... and I sang a sort of cat call. You know the whistle that you make when you see someone you think is cute... "WOOT ah Wooooo" - hopefully that communicates. Anyway, I think the dolphins found the cat call particularly interesting, and with it I got the attention of quite a few dolphins ... and once I got the attention of a dolphin I swam in circles with them trying to keep eye contact. Maybe it was because the prescription mask made my eyes look different and that was interesting to them... I don't know, but I was able to get and keep their attention for quite a while. I was just so excited to be having the experience!

For safety sake, they say you should look up every once in a while and find the boat to make sure you don't get too far away. I could see that easily happening - the adrenaline is flowing, it's such an exciting experience you forget everything else. Plus the crew was always on the boat pointing to where the largest concentration of dolphins were. It was easier for them to see because they were a little above the water. Anyway, one time it had been about a minute since I'd last seen a dolphins so I thought I better check in with where the boat was... as I straightened up my body to lift my head out of the water and look, my knee knocked into something very solid. There were no other swimmers anywhere near me, I looked in the water and nothing was there... I can only think it was a dolphin that had gotten VERY close! It was by accident, but I touched a wild dolphin. :-) Actually, it was more like I kicked it, but the guide assured me I couldn't have hurt it.

After the rough boat ride out, the up and down of the surf (particularly once I was in the water), AND all the swimming in circles with the dolphins, my seasickness got pretty bad. I was afraid I'd start getting sick in the snorkel and get myself in an unsafe situation where I couldn't get back to the boat. Besides, I was getting just plain tired. So I headed back only a minute before they started calling everyone back in so we could head back. It felt like we were in the water only five minutes, but it had to have been so much longer. A textbook case of "time flies when you're having fun"!

We stopped off to look at seals on the way back but I really didn't want to move... not even to see baby seals. I just wanted to sit and stare at the land munching on ginger cookies... I was working hard to keep it together until we got back to land... it worked. I never did get sick, but I am feeling a bit queasy even just writing about all this... it was an awful feeling. But very much worth it!

After we got back to land and to the locker rooms to change out of our gear, they offered us hot showers. I jumped on the opportunity and took my time. I was still a bit queasy after the shower, but feeling a little better.

The dolphin place had a cafe in their building and a gift shop. I bought a bunch of t-shirts and ate as bland a lunch as they had. I spent so much time there that I got to talking to one of the clerks, Dee. Among other things, we got to talking about campsites. I told her I was disappointed about not being able to camp on the beach during my stay in Kaikoura. She told me about a remote campsite right on the beach a little north of Kaikoura. I decided to check it out since I was heading north the next day anyway, to catch the ferry back to the north island. The campsite was just what I hoped for - quiet, right on the beach... it was nice. The photo to the left is of my tent pitched at the campsite.

 

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The plan was to stop and try some Kaikoura crayfish (lobster) on my way out of town the next morning, but the stands were all closed... besides my stomach was still pretty upset... and I'm not very comfortable with how they boil lobsters live... so I passed on that and just went straight to Picton to catch the ferry back to Wellington on the north island.

The ferry trip back to the north island was VERY rough. It took four hours instead of three because the waves were so high. I stayed outside the cabin on deck for the first half looking back at the sounds as we left them. Also, I was looking down into the parking level - there were tons of cars, trucks, and even train cars on the ferry. Anyway, one of the the trucks had a load of cows and I was looking down on them kinda hanging out with them. Every now and again you heard a stressful moo or some thumping. Eventually the waves, wind and rain got to be too much and I just had to get inside the cabin of the boat. I moved around alot because people were getting sick all around me. And people were walking as if they were drunk because the boat was tossing around so much... I heard a tray of glasses crash in the kitchen... on two seperate occassions. That meant even the ferry staff was having a hard time. it was pretty bad. AND this was my fourth sea activity in three days... this was the closest I came to getting sick, particularly towards the end of the ferry trip... but I kept it together. I was so relieved to finally be in Wellington and done with sea activities for a while. Eshk.

(go to Tongariro - Part Two)