A whale's tail

Trip Start Sep 23, 2004
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Friday, December 22, 2006

The summer holidays had arrived. With a spring in my step I boarded the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Christchurch. I gazed out of the plane window at the velvety blue sea, the warm and shining arc of Golden Bay, the long tongue of sand that is Farewell Spit. I had my bikini packed and was looking forward to spending Christmas touring round the South Island with my parents. 

I hadn't banked on the weather. Almost all the British staff at work had friends or family over to visit, and the weather was trying to make them feel at home by being much worse than the mild winter that England was currently enjoying. By the time I got off the plane, the rain was pouring and a strong wind had decided to visit straight from the Antarctic. I spent a chilly and damp afternoon scurrying between coffee shops and cursing my decision not to pack that extra fleece, before hopping on the bus to Kaikoura, to meet Mum and Dad. 

We drove over gently rolling hills and past vineyards, reaching the coast slightly south of Kaikoura. Fierce waves pounded upon the rocky shoreline, licking the edge of the road and covering it with spray. It was the spectacular side of New Zealand weather, but at least the rain had stopped, and I was soon tucked up in our backpackers, enjoying a glass of wine.

The following day dawned clear, and we cheerfully headed down to the Whale Way Station to join a whale watching trip. By the time we got there, however, the sky had turned an ominous grey and rain was threatening. The boats had all been cancelled for the day, and we were faced with the task of finding something else to do in Kaikoura. We decided to brave the weather, and embarked on the clifftop walk above the town. We climbed up above the stormy ocean and watched a colony of seals clinging to the rocks out to sea. Moving was a perillous activity as powerful waves washed over the creatures. We walked over the clifftops to a second colony, as the sky lightened, eventually gving us views of the snowy peaks of the Kaikoura mountains.

Hungry after all the fresh sea air, we went into town for a late lunch, and tried the local freshly-caught crayfish.  (Kaikoura is named for it's crayfish- in Maori, kai means food and koura means crayfish). It was beautiful, and went down well with a glass or two of wine!

The next morning was an early start- crystal clear skies and our second attempt at whale watching. We were in luck, the trip was on. We got on the coach to the wharf and boarded the catermeran, received our safety breifing and were off... Until the engines shuddered and the propellers refused to turn, being too clogged up with seaweed washed into the harbour by the previous day's storm. We were going nowhere. Half an hour later, the skipper gave up and we disembarked- as two other cats shot out to sea. It looked like our chance of seeing whales was scuppered. After a lot of hanging around, a coach finally arrived to take us back to the town, where we were lucky enough to get three of the few remaining seats on a later trip.

The 10.30 sailing arrived. We had fingers crossed, legs crossed, toes crossed... The engines went! The boat moved! We were off, chasing whale noises! Our luck had changed and it wasn't long until we saw our first sperm whale, lying on the surface like a giant log and blowing spray from his blowhole in a leisurely fashion. He soon came up for a last breath, and dived, his back arching until his tail flipped up into the air and he sunk from view. The size of him became clear as we watched the length of him sliding through the water; it was a breathtaking experience to be so close.

As soon as he vanished, we were off again, tracing another whale. We had the perfect viewpoint- blue sea, snow-capped mountins and the sperm whale spurting water in a leisurely fashion, until he slipped beneath the waves. We saw one more whale after this, a huge creature who got to within a few metres of him. As we headed back to land we detoured to meet a large pod of dusky dolphins, full of joi de vivre as they leapt, twisted and somersulted through the air.

It was an amazing trip, worth the wait and the false starts! Slightly later than originally anticipated we were on the road, off to Christchurch.   
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