While traveling, spotting wildlife is always one of the biggest highlights for me. The native wildlife in New Zealand consists mostly out of birds. If you want to get a bigger wildlife fix, your best bet is to head to the ocean. The cold waters that surround New Zealand are known for its abundance of marine life. It provides a home for Fur seals, Sperm whales, Blue whales, Killer whales, tons of dolphins and much more. In search of seeing some beautiful animals, I headed to the best location to see wildlife in New Zealand: Kaikoura on the South Island of New Zealand.
Less than a day’s drive from Christchurch you will find the small beach town, Kaikoura. It boasts an incredible variety of wildlife attracting many tourists per year while maintaining a small surf town vibe. Arriving in Kaikoura I felt like a kid in a candy store. Would I actually get to see whales? Can I walk around and bump into fur seals? Oh wait, there is swimming with dolphins as well?
What you can do for free
Most of the wildlife activities in Kaikoura will cost you a pretty penny. They also book out very quickly if you don’t plan ahead (like me). There are however many options to take in the beautiful scenery and wildlife that are totally free. Dolphins get spotted from the main beach almost every day!
Fur seal colony
When it comes to spotting wildlife in New Zealand, the easiest animals are definitely the Fur Seals. Also in Kaikoura, they are a breeze to find by walking along the Peninsula Walkway. You can walk along the ocean and see them close-up or walk on the cliff’s edges and hear them in the background. There are also swimming tours for those who would like to be closer to them in the water. A free option is bringing your mask and snorkel on the walk. Don’t forget that they are wild animals though and be careful!
Apart from walking around the Fur seal colony, there are many tramping (or hiking) options around Kaikoura. Ranging from 45 minutes to full-day hikes, you can burn as many calories as you desire. A particularly famous hike is the Mt. Fyffe summit track. It is 1.600 meters high and described as an eight-hour return walk. From the carpark of the Mt. Fyffe track, you also can explore several other tramping routes. Check the Docs site to see whether all tracks are open, especially when going on a several day hike.
Marine wildlife tours
Thanks to the 3km deep underwater Kaikoura Canyon that runs right along the coast, Kaikoura is one of the best towns to find wildlife in New Zealand. The canyon provides an incredibly rich marine wildlife system with lots of food and consequently lots of whales. And don’t forget about the dolphins! Kaikoura is home to several species including the Dusky Dolphins (who swim in pods of 100-800 individuals), the Common Dolphins, Hector’s Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins.
There are several whale watching tours that leave Kaikoura daily but only one with a money back guarantee, because they just are that good, and that is Whale Watch Kaikoura. The company has been showing tourist around since 1987 and is by far the best-known whale watching boat in the country. I was lucky enough to snag one of the extra seats on the boat after other passengers had canceled because these boats fill up quickly!
Right after departing and with me still bouncing up and down in my seat, we were told that the first Sperm whale had been spotted. Sperm whales are one of the most common whales to be spotted in Kaikoura as they live there all year round. Even though they are massive animals, you do have to keep your eyes open as you will probably only see their back fin and tail. They only surface for a couple of minutes and then dive to 3000m to feed at the bottom of the ocean. Incredible!
Shortly after spotting our first two Sperm whales and to my great excitement, we sighted a Blue whale. A Blue whale is the giant of the ocean as it can grow as big as a Boeing 737. They are also the loudest animals as their whistle can be heard across an entire ocean! Weirdly enough, all you get to see of these giant animals is a small portion of their back. What I wouldn’t give to jump in the water and actually see their true size!
I can’t describe how lucky we were on this tour to spot two Blue whales and 3 or more Sperm whales. I actually lost count! But there was more, on our way back to the harbor, we bumped into a pod of 400-500 Dusky dolphins! Pictures nor words can describe the feeling of seeing dolphins everywhere you look. As one of the most acrobatic dolphins in the world, the Dusky’s put up quite a show for us! My cheeks actually hurt from smiling so much while enjoying the spectacle in front of our eyes.
What I loved about the Whale Watch Kaikoura tour is that they taught us so much about the wildlife in the bay. The crew really makes an effort in finding everything they can. Being as lucky as we were, they were still trying to find a Humpback whale that was sighted in the area! The staff has a wealth of knowledge which they also share online through their website and blog post articles.
The only downside I found was you’re not allowed to stay out on the deck to enjoy the view as the boat is sailing. Therefore you had to go in and out every time something was spotted and consequently had to scramble to get a good spot for a people-free photo. However, for the amount of wildlife that they found, Whale Watch Kaikoura was definitely worth the price and I’m sure my travel buddy of the time would agree with that.
Swimming with the Dusky Dolphins
Due to budget restrictions, I couldn’t participate in an activity that is a highlight of many people looking for wildlife in New Zealand. Swimming with the Dusky Dolphins has been described as a once in a lifetime experience. They are so acrobatic and curious that they really take the crown in the ultimate dolphin best friend. Being in the water with such majestic animals and actually seeing their movement and behavior is something that is very high on my bucket list.
If you have a chance (and the budget) to participate in this amazing experience, I would say go for it. A pro tip from someone who actually went on the trip, my friend Pablo Heimplatz, is to go around dawn. The dolphins will be hunting and will consequently be very active. Did I mention that Pablo also took the most beautiful photos of his trip with Dolphin Encounter?
Image by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash
On the off chance that the Killer whales are in town, kayaking would such an amazing way to see them up close! I tried to time my visit to see these beautiful creatures but missed out by a week or so. Read on here if you want to find out when the best time is to spot whales in Kaikoura!
On the earthquake
It’s so easy to visit a destination, see everything you want to see and leave. You often miss the layer beyond the obvious. When visiting Kaikoura in Februari, we simply could not ignore the impact that the earthquake of late last year had on the town.
New Zealand is a country that experiences these natural disasters such as these and the stories of the locals here are still very vivid. While staying at the Alpine Pacific Holiday Park, we were told how the night of the quake played out and I can tell you, this is a story you won’t forget easily.
If you’re visiting an area that has gone through a natural disaster, please be mindful and respectful towards the locals. They are restoring everything back to normal as soon as possible. Be patient when the electricity fails and remember that it’s the locals who are trying to do their best of the most out of your experience. Don’t forget to support these locals business in their time of need!
Where to stay and what to eat
We stayed at the Alpine Pacific Holiday Park which has lovely campsites. I would recommend this campsite if only for its great facilities. Amazing showers and and even a hot tub and pool! You can expect to pay a very affordable 21 dollars for a night for a basic tent/van site. We, however, locked ourselves of the car at midnight and paid 125 dollars for the cabin with a comfortable bed and adjacent bathroom. Go us! right?!
Kaikoura is famous for its seafood which you can eat in most of the local restaurants. You can even go out and catch it yourself! We had some delicious pub food at The Whaler on the main street and I’m usually not a fan of pub food. The place to be for breakfast is definitely Hislops Wholefoods Cafe right near the Alpine Pacific Holiday Park.
For more information on Kaikoura, you can always visit the Tourism site of New Zealand.
Part of the trip taken with Whale Watch Kaikoura was kindly sponsored by Whale Watch Kaikoura. The tent site booked with Alpine Pacific was sponsored by the holiday park. The room was paid by my travel companion, who got us locked out, remember that lovely night Andy? He got out alive though, no worries. This trip was only possible thanks to the generous borrowing of their car by my dear friends Lieselot and Nico. If you book your stay in Kaikoura through Booking, I will earn a small commission but you won’t pay anything extra.