Kaikoura: Home of the Whale Rider

25 February 2015

New Zealand's eco-tourism capital, Kaikoura, pronounced KIE-koo-da by the locals, is a special place where towering, snow-dusted mountains seem to literally fall into the sea.

But it’s not only the breathtaking scenery that gives this sleepy town its appeal.

For thousands of years, Kaikoura kept a very deep, dark secret. Just a few kilometres offshore, the continental shelf plunges steeply to form an undersea canyon which attracts an extraordinary abundance of marine life, the most famous being the fourth largest living creature on Earth – the majestic Giant Sperm Whale.

 The township of Kaikoura. Credit: Tourism New Zealand

This is one of the few places in the world where you can have a close-up encounter with these elusive giants of the deep.

Award-winning nature tourism company, Whale Watch Kaikoura, the only operator licensed by the New Zealand Department of Conservation to conduct boat-based whale watching in the district, offers daily tours all year round.


Find another tranquil spot in New Zealand. Historic New Zealand Village Proves To Be A Tranquil Spot

Learn more about this land of legend. Legend and Landscapes Come Alive at Te Puia, Rotorua


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Legend Of New Life In The South

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Whale Watch Kaikoura is a sophisticated operation, and if you’ve been whale-watching before, you’ll probably find this a truly different experience. The company is owned and operated by the indigenous Kati Kuri people of Kaikoura, the modern day descendants of Paikea, the ‘Whale Rider’.

 Catch sight of the majestic sperm whale. Credit: Whale Watch Kaikoura

According to Maori legend, it was Tohora the whale that brought the ancestor Paikea to New Zealand many centuries ago.

Paikea was the youngest and favourite son of the chief Uenuku from the island of Mangaia in the present day Cook Islands. After his jealous brothers conspired to drown him, it’s said that the whale appeared and took Paikea to a new life in New Zealand.

Whale Watch was formed in the late 1980s, at a time when Maori became casualties of Kaikoura's declining economy.

The Kati Kuri leaders believed the local whales held the answer to the unemployment problems of the community. It seemed appropriate for Paikea's descendants to again ride on the back of the whale to survival, and the company was launched.

Almost 30 years later, its fleet of ultra-modern boats are equipped with radar and hydrophones to accurately pinpoint the location of the whales; while interactive video screens help interpret the environment and wildlife you’re seeing.

Passenger numbers are kept low to ensure a more personal experience.

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Swim With Those Acrobats Of The Ocean

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Depending on the time of year, on a typical three-hour cruise you may also encounter humpback, pilot, southern right, killer, and even occasionally blue whales; as well as New Zealand fur seals, and a multitude of seabirds including the endangered wandering albatross.

As well as some of the world’s best whale-watching, Kaikoura is home to large pods of dusky dolphins, and the world’s smallest and rarest - hector's dolphin.

 Playful acrobats of the deep. Credit: Whale Watch Kaikoura

Local operator, Dolphin Encounter offers the chance to swim with these acrobatic critters. If you don’t fancy getting wet, you can just enjoy the show of leaps, somersaults and back flips from the safety of the boat.

Kaikoura Helicopters World of Whales and Wings Over Whales will whisk you above the spectacular land and sea scapes of the Kaikoura Peninsula to the whale-watching area within five minutes by helicopter or seaplane.

A full morning of whale-watching or dolphin swimming certainly works up an appetite. The name Kaikoura literally translates as “eat crayfish” (KAI – food, KOURA - crayfish) and sampling a lunch of locally caught lobster is a must while you are here.

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Come And Eat - It's Crayfish And Green-Lipped Mussels

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Established in the mid-1970s, Nin's Bin has been a favourite stop for Kiwis heading up the coast from Christchurch for generations. The menu is simple - crayfish and delicious green-lipped mussels. A variety of fresh seafood is always on the menu in the many cafes and restaurants in town.

Cap it off with a world-renowned pinot noir or chardonnay from one of the excellent regional wineries.

 The menu's as predictable as it is delicious. Credit: Tourism New Zealand

Kaikoura still retains much of its historical charm, and beautifully restored old buildings line the main street.

For an understanding of Kaikoura’s whaling past, Fyffe House, the town’s oldest surviving building dating back to the 1800s, provides a rare opportunity to experience a real whaler's cottage, touch whale bones and even smell the fragrant aroma of whale oil.

The Kaikoura District Museum and Archives also provides a fascinating perspective on Maori life, the whaling industry and social history that has made Kaikoura what it is today.

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On Safari To Magnificent Places

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For a rare and authentic cultural experience, go on safari with the family-run Maori Cultural Tours and see some of Kaikoura’s most magnificent places with local Maori guides who will tell you the stories of the local landscapes.

And it wouldn’t be New Zealand without adventure.

 The Kaikoura peninsula. Credit: Tourism New Zealand

Walking Kaikoura's scenic coastline will expose you to the world's cleanest ocean environment, crystal clear rock pools and wild empty beaches.

Kaikoura also has some of the best year-round surf in New Zealand.

In winter, you can even go whale-watching in the morning, then spend the afternoon skiing at crowd-free Mount Lyford [open June-October], less than an hour away.

Kris Madden

Kris Madden is an award-winning travel writer whose articles have appeared in many Australian and international print and online publications and guidebooks. Her travels have taken her to more than 60 countries combining her love of writing with her passion for adventure.