Whale of a time in New Zealand

Khursheed Dinshaw | Updated on February 14, 2020

Tail’s up: The male sperm whale is easily spotted in the waters of Kaikoura, while the female and the young are found in warmer waters of places such as Tonga and Sri Lanka   -  ISTOCK.COM

Life in the Kiwi town of Kaikoura, a former whaling town, centres on different species of whales and other gorgeous marine life

It was a race between Tiaki’s tail and my camera shutter. Tiaki, a sperm whale that had breached the waters of the Kaikoura Canyon in New Zealand, was fast disappearing below the surface. And I, in a group of whale watchers on a catamaran, was in a tearing hurry to frame his resolute tail. It was a euphoric moment when I finally managed to achieve the target. I could credit my camera or my fingers for the same, but something in my heart told me that it was Tiaki who decided to oblige his guests.

Tiaki — or the ‘protector’ — has been living in Kaikoura’s waters for over 20 years. He got his name after he saved a calf that was being attacked by an orca. For the two hours and 20 minutes of our whale-watching tour, Tiaki remained the star.

Sperm whales are the most common sightings on the Kaikoura coast. Just the males though. The females and calves live in the warmer waters of places such as Tonga and Sri Lanka. This means that Kaikoura is not a breeding ground for the species. It is merely a bachelor’s pad for the male sperm whale. They migrate to Kaikoura at the young age of 10-15 years. And for the next 25 years or so, they frolic in these waters before heading back to the warmer climes for conjugal bliss.

Apart from sperm whales, the waters of Kaikoura also welcome blue whales, orcas, southern right whales and humpback whales. Dusky dolphins, New Zealand fur seals and wandering albatrosses are also spotted frequently during whale-watching tours, one of the key tourist activities that drive the economy of the former whaling town of Kaikoura.

According to the Maoris, the aboriginal citizens of New Zealand, whales are supernatural creatures. Their tribal legends talk of how the mammals guided some of the early Polynesian navigators across the Pacific Ocean to the shores of Aotearoa, which is Maori for New Zealand. In fact, an early ancestor named Paikea is said to have rode a whale called Tohora from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand. Members of the Kaikoura tribe who run the whale-watching tours claim descent from him.

My whale encounter in the town had only begun. Just down the road from my hotel on the Esplanade were the Kaikoura Anzac Park and Memorial Gardens, with a memorial obelisk paying tribute to the servicemen of Kaikoura who died in World War I. The path leading to the obelisk was lined with arches made from the jawbones of whales.

Curious about the history of whaling, we drove to Fyffe House, the oldest house in Kaikoura. It was a stark reminder of what was once the Waiopuka Whaling Station, established in the 1840s. With a fence made from whale ribs, the house belonged to Robert Fyffe, a whaler who was also the first recorded European settler of Kaikoura.

Across the house lay the Waiopuka Bay, which had the first wharf of the region. The earliest exports were potatoes, wool and bacon. And the ships sailing in brought supplies of timber, wire for fencing, kerosene and tobacco. The tobacco — apart from being smoked — was a key ingredient of sheep dip, a liquid made to rid livestock of external parasites such as mites and lice.

When commercial whaling started in Kaikoura in 1843, the Waiopuka Bay became a centre of round-the-clock activity. Water from the Waiopuka stream was used to clean the baleen (a filter that looks like a fine-tooth comb) from the jaws of whales. As I walk on the beach, I come across whalebones scattered across the area. These relics are the reason why the beach is listed as an archaeological site. And the bones, protected by law, continue to tell a story on land while the waters of Kaikoura resonate with other tales.

Khursheed Dinshaw is a Pune-based freelance writer-photographer

Travel log

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Christchurch via Singapore. Kaikoura is a scenic 2.5-hour drive from Christchurch.


The White Morph Heritage Collection (heritagehotels.co.nz/the-white-morph), on the Esplanade of Kaikoura.

BLink Tip

Rent a car to drive to Kaikoura from Christchurch and around town.

Published on February 13, 2020

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