Friday, February 3rd, 2023

Distance travelled – a lot of nautical miles

I woke up early, knowing that the whole day ahead had only one essential agenda item. The whale watching had finally arrived. It was finally upon us and we had bought tickets for the expedition at 15:30. I had passed a restless night. It was not that I was not looking forward to it, but rather that the sea and ships in general scare me. It is not really fear, as such, but more a terrible feeling of unease. I was a little afraid of seasickness too, of course, the sea in the bay the previous evening had been grey and turbulent, even in sunshine. I just hoped that everything would go well on what was supposed to be the crowning highlight of our trip and that we would see some whales into the bargain. On a previous visit to Kaikoura, some twenty years previously, all I that had seen had been a distant spout of water and something that it was claimed had been a whale – and, in Iceland, on our honeymoon whale watching trip, Lucie and I had seen just two porpoises ….

It was a beautiful sunny morning, through the open doors to our balcony, the sound of the waves arriving on the beach was muted and soothing. That was a relief ! We did not rush to breakfast. My original plan was to eat nothing at all, prior to enjoying life on the ocean wave, just in case ! However, Lucie assured me that if I ate at least three hours before the cruise, there was no way my breakfast could make a return visit, so I agreed to an early brunch. She later admitted, by the way, that she had made that up !

At around ten o’clock we set off for the town, by way of the long, curving beach, noting, when we came to the place where we had left Lucie’s excess batter from our previous evening’s meal, that the seagulls had cleaned it up very comprehensively ! Apart from us, there was nobody on the beach for over a kilometre and our twin sets of boot prints, as we took a route along the softer, damp sand at the very edge of the surf looked like an advert for some deserted Pacific atoll.

The sea was very blue, another advert-like facet, but the breakers were, even on a calm morning, crashing enthusiastically against the land. I decided to take a picture of Lucie, with the impressive surf behind her. Sadly, I dithered a bit as I searched for the best shot. Just long enough, in fact, for my chosen breaker to swamp Lucie’s boots and fill them with salty water and sand …. Oooops !

We arrived at the Whale Watch Kaikoura office which is situated in Kaikoura railway station (Whaleway Station Road, Kaikōura) and right on the beach. We found out that our expedition would go ahead, the sea out in the bay was “relatively” calm and that the first morning expedition had seen two whales. The Whale Watch Kaikoura Company is supposed to be the best in the world at what they do and has a 95% success rate of spotting a whale. There is a promise to return 80% of the ticket price in case of a failure to see any whale at all.

As I mentioned, the office was in the railway station. A passenger train was filling up with tourists heading northwards along the coast and I was able to get (yet) another “train” shot as it departed with a merry toot !

We went along to the town centre, which basically comprises a few souvenir shops, trip operators and cafés and restaurants clustered around one road. Most people do not stay in Kaikoura for long. People arrive, see whales from a boat or plane and go, it is not really a place for a prolonged vacation. There is the possibility of fishing and surfing, which younger visitors also like, but that seems to be more in the next bay, where it is a bit more residential.

As we looked for a place for brunch, the distinctive murmur of a big V8 engine announced the arrival of another piece of vintage American automotive glory. As it came towards me, I thought it was another Chevrolet Bel Air, but it was a two door Biscayne coupe. So beautiful, so much bigger than our flat and so totally impossible to park anywhere if you had one in Europe, particularly the narrow streets of Prague. I chatted to the owner and his wife. He admitted he was old enough to “indulge himself” – she admitted postponing the replacement of their bathroom so they could have it ! The joy of shared pleasures !

We had a light breakfast and walked back along the beach back to home.

We were in “waiting” mode, so Lucie took out a book and enjoyed her vacation, I wrote this journal. Not this part, of course, most of it had not happened yet, but it dd distract me a little from the nagging anxieties of having to go out upon the sea.

The clock ticked away and, what Lucie called “H Hour” arrived. We walked again along the beach, but this time along the cycle path. Lucie had dried her boots in the hot sun and knocked the grit out of them, so she did not want to risk me seeing another “photo opportunity” !

Thirty minutes before departure, all 96 participants met, registered and waited for the two buses that would take us to the boat. Everything was perfectly organized, there was no long wait and the staff were, as we were used to in New Zealand, nice, smiling and full of jokes. We will miss that attitude when we get home. A bit worryingly (and not just for me) the sign at the checkout had changed since morning. It now said that the sea was much rougher out in the bay and that there was a high risk of seasickness. One or two people did take advantage of the offer, made as the check-in took place, to cancel or reschedule. Of course, for us it was “now or never”, so we checked in. Seasickness pills were available for purchase in the gift shop, but I refused to admit mentally what “could” happen. Chin up, shoulders out. Lucie did get me to take a pill from her vast medical travelling kit. Not, as she later admitted, that she thought it would help, but that the placebo effect might work on my head. One young guy bought the seasickness pills and ate them like Smarties. We made a mental note that it would be better not to be too close to him. whilst out at sea.

The buses drove us smoothly to the marina. There were two small and one larger catamaran type motor vessels at the pier. The smaller ones are probably for the quieter times in the off-season. Our visit had coincided with the public holiday attached to Waitangi Day. The following Monday (February 6th) would be the anniversary of the day, in 1840, when the Maori chieftains collectively signed a treaty ceding sovereignty of New Zealand to the British Queen Victoria. This meant that all tours had been sold out well in advance.

Today, of course, Waitangi Day is a bit complicated by our seemingly insatiable need for Political Correctness. This is no place to debate the pros and cons of colonialism, but even Wikipedia (which we all know is a paragon of accuracy and truthfulness) says that it was signed (in translated form) more-or-less completely voluntarily by a huge majority of Maori chieftains (a surprising number of which were women). It also seems that, worried about aggressive expansion by the French, the Maori even petitioned the British government for assistance. Whilst there is no disputing that some unscrupulous people DID take advantage of some of the more loosely translated clauses, the story seems a lot different to what occurred in Australia. Maori and English are both the official languages and most signs are in both tongues. Our chief guide, who Lucie declared was “sexy” (!!) was of Maori descent and greeted us in his mother tongue and then English. In reality, only about 15% of the population of New Zealand’s five million people are of Maori descent and under half of them speak that language.

After boarding we were given safety instructions about what to do in the event of an emergency which did not include, rather surprisingly, swim towards the shore before the Orcas eat you ! The principal instruction was to sit on our bums (literally) until we were told otherwise. As soon as we set sail (if that is the right term for a vessel without them) the reason for that became self-evident. That catamaran was fast – apparently it can do in excess of 50 knots ! It was a really wild ride and it took a while for our brains to get used to the fact that it is almost impossible to capsize a catamaran – even when it looked like it must surely happen. There were the usual seasickness bags in the seat pocket in front of me and I knew Lucie was watching me. We had strict instructions as to what to do if the unthinkable happened, chief among which was to fold the top over before handing it to a crew member !

Once out at sea, in what was a “likely” area, the boat stopped and the captain climbed on the stern with a submersible probe, a kind of listening device. They do not use classic sonar because it disturbs the whales. He went from one side to the other for a while and then we were told, via a speaker, that there was a whale about half a mile away – and to grab a hand rail so we could get there quickly before it dived.

As I have said, that boat was quick. It was a roller-coaster ride and we really had to hold on to the railing with both hands. Luckily, there was plenty of room on board so we all had some railing. Lucie used the “Titanic Method” and braced herself against the railing and something softer (me !) Then, a geyser of water appeared in the distance. Everyone on board, young and old, including us, squealed with delight !

The captain very skillfully positioned us alongside the whale about a hundred metres away. Up close, it was huge and we all lined the rails admiring its size, the geysers of water it “blew” upwards and the rainbow that formed in the air when that happened.

We watched for a while, a whale IS a magnificent thing and we could only see a small percentage of it. Then the guide announced that we should all get our cameras ready, because it was about to dive. First, more body, curved for action was visible, then it completely disappeared as, with that characteristic flick of its tail above the surface, the whale dived and slowly swam down. It was mesmerising and seemed almost unreal.

The sea shelves rapidly outside of Kaikoura Bay and the whales come there to feed in the deep canyons that they find there. A whale can stay submerged for between 45 minutes and an hour, so there was no point hanging around waiting for it to come back up. So, of we went to another area where one was thought to be (an area, by the way, that was many square kilometres of open sea).

Everyone on board, including the crew, lined the rails and watched the surface, like some latter day Queequeg (from “Moby Dick”) for the first sign of surfacing which is the geysers. It was not long before a geyser appeared in the distance. Surprisingly, nobody (not even me) yelled out “Thar’ she blows !” The guide again instructed us to hold on and the whole show started again. By then everyone knew what we were waiting for, so when we waited alongside another huge whale the ship was as quiet as the grave and the tension could be cut with a knife. Again, just before the dive, the guide warned us so that no one would accidentally miss it.

During this observation, a big shark casually swam between us and the whale. In the clear blue water, it could be seen clearly and was really beautiful. Only its classic, menacing dorsal fin broke the surface of the waves.


Then, a big bonus ! A third whale was detected, approached at high speed, viewed – and we still all gasped in delight as it did the thing with its tail. By then, we hardly needed to be warned it was about to happen !

The two hours had passed seemingly in seconds and we were ordered to our seats for the trip back. Sadly, this rapid return finally pushed the guy who had lunched on the seasickness pills over the proverbial “edge”. His hand came up holding a (folded over) bag – as did several more in his immediate vicinity as if it were a contagion ! I am proud to announce that I was unaffected throughout and actually found the whole thing exhilarating !

On the way back into the bay, we were again let out for for five minutes as we passed among a school of Dusky Dolphins, which were the most common species there. With an audience and, believe me, they KNOW, they did what dolphins do, jumping and diving all around the boat while we all tried to capture their endearing antics on film. Then it was back to the pier, onto the buses and it was over. I will say it yet again, breathtaking !

After the tour which, we both felt, really marked the end of our vacation, we needed something to eat. We walked into the town and, in the Strawberry Tree restaurant (21 West End, Kaikoura), we enjoyed a starter of scallops and then “lobster’ Lucie finally got to try a Crayfish. Although it had no claws (her favourite part) she declared it more tender, in other places, than its European cousin. I, of course, had Green-lipped mussels.

After the meal, we walked home along the beach. Again we chose the tide-line, but well away from the still crashing surf. I realised I would be sad to leave, it was all so crushingly beautiful.

In the middle of the night, I was awoken by a sound coming through our open, balcony doors. I got up in time to see the lights of a train passing along the rails by the shore.

As it receded into the distance and all became quiet again, I looked up. The clear sky was sprinkled with stars. I looked for the Southern Cross and thought I had found it – but then I noticed that its “pointers” were absent. I looked further around and there it was, with Beta Centauri just below it and her brighter sister, the binary star, Alpha Centauri just below that. Clem would have been proud of me. I almost cried. I went in and disturbed Lucie. This is not something a brave man would do lightly, but she cared not a jot when she found out why I had done it. We stood on the balcony, looking up at the heavens – and almost cried together.