The astounding geology and abundant flora of New Zealand are apparent overall, but where are all the animals? Native birds seem few and far between, with the flightless kiwi a national symbol that is almost extinct, a relic from an 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 I can 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 two-mile-deep Kaikoura Canyon and you can get close 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.