Open water adventures in Kaikoura

I’ve been looking forward to visiting Kaikoura almost since I first arrived and heard about the place, and I can tell you now, it doesn’t disappoint. The town itself is small, but there’s plenty of character to it.

You’ll notice some of the damage caused by the earthquake in 2016 on your visit, although most of the town itself has recovered, some of the roads leading in and out are still being repaired years later.

There are plenty of things to do in Kaikoura, and a lot of those activities are water-based, whether you’re on the water or over it, but there are walks, too, and that’s how I started my trip here.

Starting on the peninsula

I arrived late afternoon, but other than the odd day of rain, I’ve been fortunate enough with the weather and it continued here. Glorious sunshine and warm temperatures. This offered a great chance to take a walk after the heat of the day, and the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway was a good, 3-hour option.

A view up the coast from Kean Point
A view up the coast from Kean Point

From the town centre, head south and just follow the coast. You’ll following a windy road all the way down with the ocean lapping gently next to you and just under an hour into the walk, you’ll reach Point Kean viewpoint for great coastal views. The path up to the peninsula is also here, but before you take it, head out towards the water.

There’s a seal colony a bit further down, and while I don’t recommend going all the way out there, next to the water you’ll see some fur seals soaking up the sun. Remember, these are wild animals so don’t get too close or they may react in an unfriendly way, but if your calm and quiet, you can get some good snaps of them.

Once done, head back to Point Kean and head up to the walkway. You’ll be surrounded by greenery and at various points rewarded with views of the coast below. On some days, you might even see whales out in the ocean. I wasn’t so lucky.

Take your time and enjoy it, as before you know it, you’ll reach South Bay. Continue along the coast and beyond the marina until you reach a trail into the grass. You can take this back to the town centre or take a little longer and continue on to the highway and the longer loop. The latter is longer but easier, although I didn’t find the hills bad on the shorter option, and you know how much I LOVE hills. It was a good introduction to the area on a stunning evening.

I’ve heard the walk is great at sunset and sunrise, too, but bring a torch for when your walking in the dark.

Going for a swim

This was the big one.

This was what I wanted to do from the moment I heard.

Swimming. With. Dolphins.

Thanks to Dolphin Encounter, I was able to make this one a reality. Now, outside of COVID times, this is one of the most popular activities in the area and in the summer, it’s booked up weeks in advance. I was lucky enough to do this when there were fewer people around, but don’t wait around to book it. If you have to plan your trip around this, somewhat, I can promise you it’ll be worth it.

Ready to swim with dolphins!
Ready to swim with dolphins!

With an early start, and geared up in a full wetsuit and snorkel gear with my GoPro, and ready to get on the boat. I won’t lie, I was a little nervous. Snorkelling wasn’t the easiest activity I’ve tried – getting used to regulating my breathing compared to how I normally swim was difficult, and one of the staff on the boat offered a few tips – like slowing down instead of swimming hard like I’m used to.

We swam five times. There’s no way to predict how the dusky dolphins will react to any group of swimmers, but these animals are very curious and playful. Of the five groups we swam with, only one, the second, left within a minute. The rest stuck around to see what we were about.

From mimicking their movements to making the noises similar to their own, there are a number of ways to engage with dolphins, including spinning around when they circle you. I managed this a couple of times and even saw a few young ones, which was a real surprise!

I tried to take photos and videos, but they move so fast that by the time I got the camera around, they’d gone. After a while, I chose to settle with whatever I got and just enjoy the experience.

A shot of how close the dolphins get underwater
A shot of how close the dolphins get underwater

The dolphins come very close to you, and I’m talking inches away, but any sudden movements towards them, like reaching out for them, and they’ll be gone in the blink of an eye. It’s best to engage with them on their terms, as we’re in their home and essentially guests. If we disrespect them, they’ll leave and that’s no fun for anyone.

Again, these are wild creatures. Don’t do anything to aggressive or harmful to them and you’ll be safe.

We spent some time on the boat after, warming up and watching another pod of dolphins jump and swim around, which is where most of my photos and videos come from. We were even lucky enough to attract the attention of two Hector’s dolphins!

I could have stayed out there all day, but there are strict limits on how much time we can swim and even stay on the water, for the benefit of the dolphins. The whole thing was eye opening and an amazing experience.

Watching for whales

After the incredible experience of swimming with dolphins, I opted for another of Kaikoura’s big options with Whale Watch.

After a day of grey, showery weather, and an uncertain morning, the weather cleared in time for us to head out and look for sperm whales. We found one pretty quickly and got a good view of it resting on the surface, followed by the customary dive and tail flap, which was great to see.

A sperm whale on the surface for a breather
A sperm whale on the surface for a breather

Mission accomplished, right?

Right, but we were in for a treat. As we looked for another whale, we came across some dolphins and albatross, but the bigger surprise was the appearance of some Orca, and while I didn’t get any good shots of them because they stayed a fair distance from the boat, we counted a fair few swimming around the water.

It’s not that common a thing to see Orca on these tours, and even if they’re spotted, only one tour on a day is likely to see them. I’m glad to have chosen the right day and time to see them in the wild. We spent a fair bit of time watching them and the other dusky dolphins swim and jump around before our sperm whale returned to the surface for a quick look and another dive.

The whole thing flew by, and it felt like minutes rather than a couple of hours. Again, in the interest of these animals, strict rules dictate how many tours can take place a day and their duration.

That brought an end to a fantastic few days in Kaikoura, with some memories I’ll never forget.

Christmas was just around the corner, and I was spending it in one of the country’s bigger cities, Christchurch.

Until then.

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