Where the mountains meet the sea.
Kaikoura is a small coastal town just two hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Just about any photo can attest to the remarkable beauty of its mountains pressed up against the sea.
Unfortunately, Kaikoura recently suffered a detrimental 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November of 2016, whose destruction has limited driving access to just SH 76. However, Kaikoura’s beauty and magnificence remains true, and is still worthy of discovery on any trip to the South Island.
What makes Kaikoura so special not only lies in the lofty peaks on the mountain horizon, but also beneath the surface of the sea. The Hikurangi Trench lays beside the Kaikoura Peninsula, creating unique oceanic conditions immediately offshore. Warm water upwellings in the trench creates the perfect conditions for plentiful amounts of planktons year round, which in turn creates a bountiful home for large marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Peep the seals in the photo below (little brown blobs on the rocks near the left side and middle of the bottom of the frame)!
Kaikoura has a ton of not-to-be-missed opportunities to get up close to these amazing creatures. From swimming with wild dolphins, to whale-watching cruises - even to aerial observation from planes or helicopters - there are tons of ways to explore the trench ecosystem. We opted for the third choice.
The i-Site in town can give you loads of information on all your options, and maybe even hook you up with a deal or two. We booked with Wings Over Whales, which operates out of a small airfield just 10 minutes south of the main town center. They take you up in a 10-person propeller plane and fly over the open water for 30-50 minutes, spotting out whales or dolphins as you go. I was lucky enough to sit co-pilot, as long as I promised not to put any pressure on the pedals at my feet.
Unfortunately, as is the case with any ecotourism excursion, there are no promises. We can’t control nature. Some days are better than others, and for us, it seemed that we flew at the wrong time. No whales were seen, but the flight was still spectacular. The mountains stood up to our teeny plane, unmoving as the sun slowly set behind their peaks. The views were worth the trip alone.
There are plenty of other wonders in and around Kaikoura: hiking, swimming, or maybe sleuthing out the secret fur seal colony. Even just a few days in Kaikoura would be a dream.