The catamaran sped away from Kaikoura through the surf, rolling over the waves at breakneck speed. We had to sit inside whilst moving for safety reasons and I can’t say I was feeling too rosy. Thankfully whenever the vessel came to a stop we were able to go back outside on to the deck. The cool sea breeze blew icy spray into my face but I stubbornly maintained my shivering perch on the starboard railing. I had never seen so many people being seasick.
Breathing in a deep lungful of salty air and staring hard at the horizon, I willed my stomach to settle. A Wandering Albatross dipped and rose on the wind in the distance. I sometimes lost sight of it as it flew low and was hidden by somersaulting waves. Suddenly the bird would reappear, rising up on a gust of air. It glided on slim, perfectly formed black wings that didn’t seem imposing enough for a bird of such size. The albatross rarely touches land and can sleep whilst flying by shutting down half of its brain at a time. It is a true ocean-lover, the ultimate pelagic bird species and sleekly, aerodynamically beautiful.
The captain leaned over the side of the boat to listen for whale sounds through a hydrophone dipped just under the water’s surface. We were searching for a Giant Sperm Whale. The largest species of the odontocete (toothed) whales, Sperm Whales can grow 15-20m in length, weigh up to 60 tonnes and have the largest brain of any living animal. They can be found just off the coast at Kaikoura in New Zealand’s South Island all year round. The submerged Kaikoura Canyon is a popular feeding ground for male sperm whales (it’s too cold for the less-blubbery females) and tour operator Whale Watch Kaikoura can almost guarantee to find you one. The morning I rose at dawn to hopefully encounter my first whale, though, they hadn’t seen a single one for six days.
We’d heard the ‘clicks’ or sound waves of a whale and the chase was on. The tour guide begged over the intercom for everyone to sit back inside as quickly as possible so we could speed after this underwater giant. Off we sailed in a seemingly random direction before coming to a stop some 1.5km from where we’d started. Again, the captain listened for the whale song. Again, we raced forward in the same direction. It was exciting and exhilarating knowing that whenever we stopped a whale might appear at any moment.
Stop; start; stop; start. For almost an hour we gave chase. Sperm whales have a dive period of between 40-60 minutes so you really have to time it right to catch the whale on the ascent. It’s very much a case of right place, right time. Sometimes we would be allowed out on to the deck to help look for the whale. I scanned the waters for the spray of a blow-hole in vain.
We only had 20 minutes left on the water before we must head back to Kaikoura. I began to give up hope we would get to see this whale. It was toying with us, swimming around deep below totally oblivious to the desperately hopeful humans following it from above.
Then it breached.
Although we were only seeing a small proportion of the whale its size was still impressive. The head and upper back were exposed in the surf as he powered through the water, spraying from his blowhole every 30 seconds or so. The head was clearly visible, as was the whale’s lopsided blowhole and its dorsal fin with a little chunk missing. Occasionally I lost sight of him behind the rolling waves, much like the albatross, and was wowed all over again when he came back in to view. He was without a doubt the most impressive beast I have ever laid eyes on – and I got barely five minutes in his presence. The giant was so graceful and gentle he hardly seemed real. There is nothing like your first whale.
All sea-sickness forgotten, we watched the sperm whale descend back into the depths. These whales can get down to 3000m underwater, making them the deepest diving mammals in existence. With a gracious flick of his grey tail fin he sank beneath the waves for the next 40 minutes or so. I’d paid almost $200 to feel horrendously sick all morning and spend five minutes with a whale. It was worth every cent.