On New Zealand’s South Island, the astounding geology and abundant flora are apparent overall. But where are all the animals?
Native birds seem few and far between, with the national symbol of the flightless kiwi almost extinct, as a relic from the ancient paradise. Imported animals, such as sheep, rabbits and deer, just can’t excite the imagination of the visiting tourist. But at sea there is another world awaiting and on the wild and scenic Otago Peninsula you can see Royal Albatrosses nesting, Yellow-eyed Penguins and sea lions.
The bay of Kaikoura on the East Coast of the island is the only place in the world where you can get close to a Wandering Albatross. This threatened species, with a wing-span of up to three meters, makes an annual journey right around the world to return to their only breeding colony, here in New Zealand.
Just a little further along the coast from Kaikoura you can easily get close enough to see – and smell – thousands of fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. They don’t seem to harbor a grudge against humans who tried hard to make them extinct a century ago. Now they enjoy diving and playing with us.
The animals that make it all happen on the Kaikoura Coast, however, are the whales. Kaikoura, a former whaling port, is one of the few places in the world where giant Sperm Whales can be seen year-round. They swim just offshore to harvest food from the strong currents of the 3 km-deep Kaikoura Canyon and you can get as close as 10 meters to these majestic giants as they languidly dive into the deep.
In winter, you can also see Humpback Whales performing their spectacular shows of breaching, flipper slapping, ending with that so-familiar image of the fluked tail fin disappearing beneath the waves. This experience alone would make a journey to the other side of the world well worth it for those of us living in the northern hemisphere.
For further inspiration, venture into the water off Banks Peninsula near Christchurch to swim along with hundreds of wild Hector’s Dolphins who adore showing off their spins, flips, turns and somersaults. These endangered but exuberant mammals seem to be crazy about close encounters with us strangely stiff human beings: they can play underwater tag and always win.
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