Monday, May 9, 2011

Whales and Seals

It was Todd's first trip to New Zealand. One of us, I forget whom, had won two free tickets on Air New Zealand, the national carrier of a country I'm quite familiar with, and we made arrangements to go for a couple of weeks. On the flight down I was thoroughly humbled by a grandmother from England who traveled two hours to London's Heathrow Airport, flown 12 hours to Los Angeles, was my seatmate for the 12 hour flight to Auckland from whence, following a healthy layover, she had another three hour flight to Brisbane. All for the sake of seeing her first grandchild. I kept my agonizing to a minimum.

Following some time in Auckland we made our way south to Christchurch to visit with friends and to hopefully experience real whale watching for the first time in either of our lives. I'd done some research before flying down about expeditions launching from the small coastal town of Kaikoura and had set all the arrangements for the 2nd day of our arrival on the South Island. Of the three tours scheduled between early morning and high noon we were booked on the 2nd starting at around 10:30 the following morning.

We picked our way to NZ#1, the two-lane national highway leading north along the eastern coastline to Kaikoura, paying attention to every road sign since every road looked the same as well as the British Commonwealth driving on the opposite side of both car and highway. Despite being tired from an evening with friends and the early hour upon us there was time aplenty to notice the bucolic beauty of rural New Zealand, something to that point I had never experienced in this part of the country. Farms, sheep of course, short trees, fruit groves and all of it covered in thick carpets of green. In a country of only four million confined to two middling sized islands (the North Island could fit in Ohio) they were thankfully blessed with not needing a lot of space along with the fact that much of it is quite mountainous and rugged, limiting any desire to create a lot of sprawl from the start.

Large pods of bachelor sperm whales gather off the coast of Kaikoura on the northeast side of the South Island. They gather here as they wait to mature and grow large enough to compete for females but also because one of their favorite foods, the giant squid, is known to collect here in great quantities as well. Diving up to a mile deep for their prize, when they surface the sight is nothing short of spectacular, blowing huge plumes of spray as they seek to replenish sorely depleted oxygen reserves. These brutes average 40-45 feet in length and are the largest toothed-whales in the world. The deep waters of Kaikoura are not always tame, either. These are active, deep Pacific waters with no reefs or shoals to tame the seas.

Three hours of driving and we had arrived. Kaikoura would be right at home as a one-horse town somewhere in Wyoming. Not much to look at, one road through town to the rest of civilization and one angry, roaring ocean just off the right shoulder. We hadn't noticed the storm clouds getting thicker the closer we drew to our destination. Unlucky us, they came together with a vengeance right off the coast but having come all this way we refused to let the weather tell us our tour was in jeopardy.

The sign in the window of the tour offices did that instead. All whales had either gone deep or further out to sea to escape the boiling cauldron nearer to shore. With up to a 10-foot chop at the surface there was nothing to see and nothing worth the risk in trying. Sorry, thanks, come back another day. As with most tourists there wasn't "another day" built in to our timeline. Asking about other activities in the area we were advised of a seal colony a few miles south where one lone seal steadfastly snoozed on the rocks while the others also absconded to better climes and locales.

Three hours' drive and some eight thousand miles from home for one stinkin' seal? Nice!

Gotta go.

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