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Last Updated on 11/04/2021
It’s no secret that New Zealand is a superb whale watching destination and, in my humble opinion, the best place to see whales in New Zealand is Kaikoura. Nestled near the top of the east side of the South Island, Kaikoura is a small peninsula and coastal town of its namesake. In 2016, its local infrastructure was destroyed when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the South Island and triggered a small tsunami.
Known as the place where the mountains meet the sea, Kaikoura’s views are dramatic. Inland, you can see the Seaward Kaikoura Range, a branch of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and out to sea, it’s rich marine life draws many visitors eager to catch a glimpse of it for themselves.
The most common whale sightings you encounter here are the resident sperm whales. The chances of seeing them is a pretty decent 95% throughout the year. Other popular residents are dusky dolphins, fur seals and little blue penguins.
Kaikoura is also a spot for migrating humpbacks, blue whales and even orca pods, although you’ll have to catch them in the right season. From tours to what time of year you should visit, here’s what you need to know about the best whale watching location in New Zealand:
The different types of whales around Kaikoura
Photo credits: Abigail Lynn
First, let’s dive into what you can actually see here. This is not an extensive list of marine life in Kaikoura but it gives you an idea of what to expect:
Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to see sperm whales all year round. They love this spot because it’s home to the 3km deep Kaikoura Canyon which creates a series of rare sea currents that allow marine life to flourish. Incidentally, the name ‘Kaikoura’ in the Maori language (te reo) means ‘to eat crayfish’.
Sperm whales are at the top of the food chain here and they dive hundreds of metres for their food. Their main diet is giant squid but they have been known to feast on sharks and bony fish too. Every sperm whale you see in off the coast of Kaikoura is male as females prefer warmer tropical waters.
You can sometimes see humpback whales in Kaikoura from June to August as they migrate up from Antarctica to mate and give birth. These whales are famous for their fantastic breach displays where they lunge out of the water to create a splash that stuns their prey. They’ve been known to do this to show off too.
The largest animal in the world has been known to pass by Kaikoura. They’re generally sighted at various times throughout the year, but on the whole, they’re pretty rare.
It’s no surprise that orca flock here to feast on the abundant marine life. You can usually see them in the summer months from December through to March. Nicknamed the ‘wolves of the sea’, they tend to hunt in packs and eat anything from blue whales (seriously!) to seals and dolphins.
Long-Finned Pilot Whale
These whales are highly sociable and they can be usually seen travelling in a pod of hundreds. They might even have a few bottlenose dolphins tagging along with them for the ride.
Other marine life
Kaikoura is absolutely teeming with marine and wildlife so it’s likely that you’ll see a lot more than whales. Highlights include fur seals, albatross, little blue penguins, dusky dolphins, minke whales, southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins and the rare endemic hector’s dolphins (you can read about how to see them here!)
Whale watching season
Photo credit: Todd Cravens
The best time to go whale watching in Kaikoura depends on what you’re hoping to see. You can spot sperm whales and dusky dolphins all year round but for migrating whales, the schedule is a little different as you can see below:
Summer season: From December through to March you can see orca and occasionally blue whales.
Winter season: The best time is from June to August as you have the chance to spot humpback whales, southern right whales and sometimes blue whales. On the whole, winter tends to be the best time of year for migrating whales.
Whale watching tours
Photo credit: Davide Dalfovo
There are several ways you can go whale watching in Kaikoura, depending on your budget and preference:
Catamaran: Operated by Whale Watch Kaikoura, this tour is probably the easiest and cheapest way to see whales. Tours run daily and all year round with scheduled times starting from 7:15am and ending at 12:45pm. Additional times are added on during the peak season (November to March). Prices start from 60 – 150 NZD.
Helicopter: Fancy seeing the whales from the air? South Pacific Helicopters and Kaikoura Helicopters allow you the chance to spot whales from ‘tip to tail’ as you get an aerial view of them before they dive down. Prices aren’t cheap and adult tickets will set you back about 245 -785 NZD. Still, it’s a good option if you suffer from sea-sickness or if you want to get an idea of their impressive size.
Plane: Thanks to Air Kaikoura Aero Club you can see whales from a plane. The flight is about 30 minutes with the option to extend it to maximise your chances of seeing one. Prices start from 75 – 150 NZD.
Dolphin watching tours
Photo credit: Pablo Heimplatz
There are plenty of great places to see dolphins in New Zealand – it’s a country made up of islands after all – but I think Kaikoura still wins hands down. It’s likely that you’ll see some on a whale watching tour but there are a few dedicated experiences that you can do too:
Dolphin Encounter: This tour operator allows you to both watch and swim with dolphins all on the same vessel. Swimmers are kitted out in a wetsuit and snorkel and tours run three times a day. Only 13 people will have the chance to do this per vessel so if you’re keen, make sure you book in advance.
If you would prefer to watch then the vessel has ample viewing decks to enjoy the show. An adult ticket for dolphin watching is 95 NZD and swimming with dolphins is 180 NZD.
Photo credit: Jess Snoek
Just like any activity involving the natural world, whale watching commands respect for these beautiful ocean giants. Unsurprisingly, New Zealand is no stranger to being a world leader in green tourism and this includes Kaikoura. You can read more about ecotourism in New Zealand here.
After noticing that the growing number of visitors to the local area was starting to damage the environment, the Kaikoura District Council adopted the EarthCheck Sustainable Destinations programme in the 1990s.
Kaikoura has since become the first community in New Zealand and the second in the world to achieve Benchmark status in 2002 and certification status in 2004 through the programme.
The Whale Watch Kaikoura catamarans in particularly have been designed with the wellbeing of the whales in mind. They’re powered by inboard diesel engines that minimise underwater noise to prevent noise pollution. This is important as sperm whales use sound to navigate.
Whale watching in Kaikoura: What to expect
Photo credit: Jackie Eggins
During my visit to Kaikoura, I opted for the catamaran whale watching tour. It was a chilly August day and the sea was pretty choppy which meant that there was a possibility that the tour might be cancelled.
It was a nervous wait but luckily, the tour operators decided to push ahead and we bundled onto the catamaran with a few warnings that it might ‘get a bit bumpy’. Hot tip: sitting at the back of the catamaran is less rocky than being right at the front.
We sat tight and sped away from the coastline to the open waters. It was an overcast day and the grey waves buffeted the catamaran a little uncomfortably as we went past. The tour guides did well to distract us with a short video presentation about the sperm whale – the creature we were all eager to see.
At last, the catamaran slowed down. It was time to find a whale – but where do you begin to even look in the vast open water? There was no sign of life around us except for a fur seal languishing on its back and an albatross swooping over the waves.
The staff were well-trained at spotting whale signs and there was a whole team in contact with each other over walkie-talkies as they scoured the waters but after a good 20 minutes there wasn’t a peep and I was starting to get a bit shifty.
I’d already had a disappointing experience in the Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island where I had gone on a dolphin cruise and there had been no dolphins. It wasn’t their fault. These creatures are wild animals, not circus performers. There’s always the risk that they don’t fancy showing up.
However, it seemed my luck turned – at least on the dolphin front. Suddenly, hundreds of dusky dolphins appeared, drawn by the catamaran. They jumped and spun behind us like a marine entourage on our hunt for sperm whales. It certainly made up for their elusive behaviour up north.
But there were still no whales and the chances of seeing one was getting slim as our time was starting to run out.
Then, an urgent call came through. A sperm whale had been spotted by another catamaran. We hurried to our seats and the chase was back on.
As we drew closer, we could just start to make out the dark curve of the whale’s back in the swelling waves. We watched rapt while he puffed from his blowhole as he took a breather before diving down.
Five minutes later, he made it clear it was time to go. Almost in slow motion, as if he was being considerate of the photographs, he arched his back, pushed his tail up into the air and slid down into the water.
We were lucky enough to see two sperm whales that day and I felt pretty blessed to have been allowed a glimpse into the world of these magnificent creatures. I was also chuffed that I had finally found closure with New Zealand’s dolphins.
Top tips for whale watching in Kaikoura
Photo credit: NOAA
Weather: Kaikoura tends to be fairly mild all year round with average temperatures of about 12.7℃. It rains a lot though which is why whale watching can be prone to cancellations. Regardless of the time of year, it tends to be pretty windy and cold out at sea so remember to pack a few extra layers and a waterproof jacket to keep yourself warm and dry.
The best time to go: Whale watching tours are best done early in the morning. The sea is usually calmer (trust me, this is important) and you have fewer people on your tour. As you can imagine, these tours are extremely popular so the key is to book in advance where possible and avoid holidays and weekends for the best chance of securing the timeslots your want.
Sea-sickness: My experience was a little harrowing for this reason. I won’t go too much into details but let’s just say that a rough sea, a small catamaran and no working toilets are not a pretty combination. If you suffer from motion sickness, bring along some medication because there’s only so far staring at a fixed point can take you, especially when the fixed point moves…
Cancellations: Due to rough weather, there’s always a possibility of cancellations. You will always be able to find out on the day so check the tour’s website and social media for updates. You can also give them a call.
Refunds: If in the event you don’t actually see any whales (it’s possible, they’re wild animals after all), you will likely get the chance to do the trip again for free or get up to 80% of the ticket price refunded. If it’s your dream to see whales or dolphins in Kaikoura then it’s absolutely worth it to spend an extra few days here so you can definitely be sure to tick them off your bucket list. It’ll be worth the wait!
Photo credit: NOAA
Whether you’re hoping to swim with dolphins or cross whale watching off your bucket list, there’s no better place in New Zealand than Kaikoura. This small bit of coastline on New Zealand’s South Island has become a crucial haven for resident and migrating whales.
Not too long ago whales were hunted to near extinction so its a hugely humbling experience to see the world’s biggest creatures protected and thriving up close.
As you’ve probably noticed, I didn’t manage to get any decent photos of the whales I saw but here’s a quick video of what I did manage to capture:
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