Whale Watching – Kaikoura, New Zealand

with 19 Comments

The beautiful peninsula of Kaikoura on the South Island of New Zealand is known for its marine life and dramatic Southern alps that seems to drop into the ocean. I passed through here quite a few times when first arriving in the country and just had to book a couple of specific trips here. There is so much to see and do in the area; I am looking forward to stopping there again on my next visit to NZ.

Whale Watching - Kaikoura, New Zealand
My Picture Of Sperm Whale Fluking in Kaikoura New Zealand | © Travels and Wandering

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Kaikoura is a wonderful place to visit and I was lucky to visit here a few times for meals when travelling between Christchurch and Blenheim or to meet up with friends on several occasions. It was always a toss up between a stop over in the southern alpine village of hanmer springs to enjoy the hot thermal pools or exploring all that the coast has to offer.

A while ago (when living in New Zealand) I was moving back up to Blenheim, Marlborough with my friend to work on the Vineyards for the winter season and we decided to stop overnight.

Getting To Kaikoura

Kiakoura is on the east coast of New Zealand and easy to access. You can take the transcoastal train, the intercity bus or drive and reach here with ease from Christchurch, Picton or Blenheim.

Driving Times To Kaikoura

  • From Christchurch to Kaikoura took us around 3 hours (but can take less)
  • From Blenheim To Kaikoura was just over 1.5 hours
  • From Picton To Kaikoura was around 2 hours.

The one night was enough time to still do a lot provided we got there at a reasonable time and I had been lucky enough to visit Kaikoura a few times and was also living in blenheim for 9 months of my my time in the country.

If you are coming to NZ for a holiday or maybe this is the only chance you’ll get to see Kaikoura, I’d recommend staying longer (maybe a few nights). If you like wildlife and a chilled out vibe.

If you (like us on this occasion) are able to arrive by midday and leave in the afternoon or later the next day, this could be a reasonable time frame and a cheaper option to stay just one night, but get to see a few things.

Why Is Kaikoura So Good For Whale Watching?

Kaikoura is one of only a few sites in the world where you can see whales so close to land. This is due to the underwater canyon where the depth of the sea floor dramatically drops (if you look at it on google earth you can see the colour change in the sea next to the peninsula).

Booking A Whale Watching Tour

There are two options for booking a whale watching tour in Kaikoura:

  • The first is Helicopter Tour of the peninsula you will be able to fly above them at a safe distance, heading out with ease if they are detected a bit further from land. This option is slightly more costly, however there is a likelihood to see more and spot them sooner.
  • The second is a Boat Tour, this will get you closer to the whales up to 50m. For these tours they use sonar tracking in partnership with other boats and the helicopters to track where they are. We experienced this one, if you would like to hear about our experience keep reading the next section.

We decided to book a whale watching tour from the i-site in Kiakoura. We tried to book that day but only had availability for the following day. We were very lucky we were staying overnight (it has become busier since, so you may want to do this more in advance especially outside of the winter season).

Our Review and Experience Of Whale Watching Boat Tour

When we went on the boat we were expecting it to be cramped, a little boring and that there was a possibility we wouldn’t see anything. However this boat tour was the opposite, it was engaging and educational. They have marine biologists and conservationists working with the tours to educate and often deliver the presentation on the trips. The boat was busy but didn’t feel it. They had a reasonable limit on the number of people, allowing people to sit comfortably and get a clear view out of the boat.

As we set off on the boat trip, we were informed when we were coming up to what could be a whale and allowed to listen to the sonar on a speaker at times as they explained it. Within 10 minutes of being on the boat we had listened to the safety presentation, the introduction and then were told they had found a sperm whale very close.

For every minute a whale spends above the the surface they will spend around 15 minutes below.

Our first sight was a Sperm Whale, that put on a bit of a show. It spent time in what looked like rolling before pushing up out of the water, then cruised along the surface. After a few minutes of the boat keeping a safe distance but following it, we saw it dive down with its fluke up in the air.

Another Sighting of a Whale

The sheer size, power and grace of these animals is just break taking. We were all in awe and felt so lucky to have witnessed this amazing sight. We were then spoilt further we saw heaps of seals, two blue penguin and 15 minutes later we saw a humpback whale. This viewing was a little more brief but still amazing to watch. My description honestly could not do this experience justice.

We then waited for a while and soon time on our tour was coming towards the end, so the boat took us to the albatross sanctuary. I have never seen so many Albatross in one place, they were so at ease. What’s more, there were some other rocks around the footing of the island and these were covered by seals. You could only just make out that the seals as they were camouflaged into The rocks. Once you noticed them it looked almost as if the seals where sitting in guard.

You can even surf in Kaikoura a little north of the peninsula | Source @Unsplash - Tim Marshal
You can even surf in Kaikoura a little north of the peninsula | Source @Unsplash – Tim Marshal

As we headed back to land, we suddenly started to turn away from the path of travel, the engine kicked in and we started to speed up. Then the engine came to an abrupt stop and the tour guide called us over but didn’t want to use the microphone because there was another sperm whale a bit closer than before because it had also change course towards the direction of the boat (not in a dangerous way but the skipper of the boat was cautious to slow and start turning away) and there we had our last viewing of another whale above the surface (Showing off as I like to call it).

Other Places That Are Great For Whale Watching

  • Tonga
  • California around Monterey
  • British Columbia in Vancouver or off Vancouver Island with stunning backdrops from the surrounding mountains and sounds.
  • Alaska especially along the inside passage which begins in British Columbia and stretches up.
  • The Maritime Provinces with the Bay of Fundy being very popular.
  • If you want to go whale watching in europe then you are best heading to the Nordic Coastlines. The top choices are:
  • Iceland in Akureyri – This is based in the north of Iceland and rated the best place to do this, however you can opt for both Reykjavic or Husavik depending on your time and locations you plan to visit (many tourists tend to stick to south iceland but I would definitely reccomend seeing as much of the country as possible).
  • Norway in Tromso This become one of top locations for whake watching, with very good reason. In Norway you will notice they tend to place an emphasis on ethical tourism and Whale Watching here is no different. Check out these top ethical tour options.

Don’t Miss The Sunrise In Kaikoura

Once we were back on Land we headed to our accommodation which was a a backpackers hostel (details at the bottom of this article) that also had which had a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, which was ideal for this time of year as it was the beginning of winter.

The next morning I set my alarm to see the Sunrise. I am not sure why I wanted to do this but it was one of those things when travelling you have the time for. Kaikoura did not disappoint (above). I set my alarm and tried to ignore it but could see a glow through our window we had left open. When I peered out to see what the colour was, the sky was like a painting. I had never seen a sunrise like this as have yet to see one as vibrant. I quickly got changed, grabbed my camera (Which was just an old Kodak bridge camera that at the time. Although reasonable as these pictures above are completely unedited. It still did not do it justice).

Watching Seal Pups At Ohau Waterfall

On our way out of Kaikoura we headed up to Ohau waterfall and seal sanctuary. I only got a couple of pictures as I spent most of my time in disbelief at the amount of seal pups there. You can see seals on the rocks along the coastal drive highway, but if you look for a sign and pull over you can take a short walk to a waterfall under a train bridge and find seal pups playing round in the water, where they are safe from predators and the rough seas conditions in winter.

Please note: This seal colony was mostly destroyed during an earthquake in 2015, however there are active works to restore the area and ensure there are plenty of places along this section of coastline for seals to be protected.

Where To Stay In Kaikoura

Backpacker Budget

Dusky Lodge – just a few minute drive north of the main centre of Kaikoura. it has an outdoor heated pool and hot tub (this was where we stayed on this occasion).

Modest Budget Accommodation

Hapuku Lodge and Tree houses – These quirky tree houses are about 15 years old and have become an attraction to go to Kiakoura on their own. The views in these are amazing and the furnishings are all what you’d expect in a 5 star suit with a little added charm. The prices are more high end but if you want a night in luxury on your travels or you have a higher budget I would recommend this. They also host regular events and have a restaurant you could book in for (the food is also delicious).

Prices £500 +

I should also mention we grabbed some crayfish from Nins Bins (don’t miss it if you like fresh seafood). I had passed this food van a few times on the way out of Kaikoura and had to try it.

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Owner of Travels and Wandering | Lecturer by Day, Nomad at Heart Adventure Travel Tester | Outdoor Instructor | Mountaineering and Outdoors Researcher | Strength and Conditioning Coach | Yoga Instructor | Personal Trainer | Fitness Pro | Endo Warrior, Pelvic Congestion Syndrome, Spoonie

19 Responses

  1. Chirasree

    I’ve seen whales while on the ocean a few times, but never like this!! The pictures you’ve captured are amazing!

  2. Barbara

    What an amazing whale watching day you had!  I spend nearly a year petsitting my way around New Zealand and neve made it to Kaikura – woe to me!  That sunrise was well worth the effort to wake up early, for sure.  I might have made more of an effort if I knew I could have an experience like yours.  It’s on the bucket list for my next Kiwi Adventure.  Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Natalie

    Wow! Looks like you had an amazing experience. I loved Kaikoura when I was in New Zealand years ago, though I missed out on whale watching there. It’s somewhere I definitely want to go back to. I have great memories of Oahu waterfall 😁

  4. Linda (LD Holland)

    We have done whale watching around the world.  But it always draws me in for another view when we travel.  So great when you get a great educational experience too.  I think I would like to try the helicopter whale watch.

  5. Cosette

    Love a good whale watching tour and you were so lucky with your sightings. Great to know it happens so frequently there.

  6. Claire

    I went whale watching in Iceland and it was a great experience! I would definitely do another tour, it was a lot of fun 🙂 

  7. Carol Colborn

    I was lucky enough to have seen my first whale in Puerto Vallarta. But I didn’t realise that every minute a whale they stay below for 15 minutes. Now I know I need to be patient and wait!!! I’d love to see them in Kaikoura Thanks.

  8. Jan

    I have been to NZ and but missed Kaikoura. Those sunsets look amazing! I definitely want to do whale watching too. Maybe in my next trip to NZ! 🙂

  9. Paula Martinelli

    Amazing experience! I have done whale watching in some countries before, but not in New Zealand – it looks so magic! 

  10. Sue

    This brought back amazing memories of my whale watching tour in Kaikoura, back in the ’90’s. We saw whales, then loads of seals & finally dolphins everywhere, leaping out of the water all around us. It was such a beautiful experience. Then on the way back to Christchurch we saw movement on the beach, went to investigate & ended up just sitting on a rock watching seals for an hour. I didn’t have a good camera at the time so decided to just watch. I try & remember that nowadays, put my lens down & savour the moment a little. Thanks for the memories!

  11. Slavka

    We have just recently been on a whale watching tour in Canada but did not see any jumping from the water. Just the spray and dorsal fin of many whales. I hope I’ll be fortunate to see whales in other parts of the world. Hopefully in New Zealand as well 🙂 

  12. Renata

    This looks amazing. I always wanted to see whales. Unfortunately, when I was in Argentina, season was just over. Nevertheless, I got to see some other amazing creatures, namely penguins. And for the whales, I have to go to New Zealand, then 😉

  13. Lindley Loraine

    Love this!! We are thinking about moving to NZ and we know it looks amazing, and this is being added to our list of things to do when we get there

  14. Lorry

    For untouched photos, they are amazing.  I can only imagine what the scenery was like in real life.  What a fantastic way to expereince the magnificent whales.

  15. Ann

    I just love watching the sunrise or set 🙂 
    New Zealand has been a bucketlist destination for me for quite some time, and even though I have looked into it a lot, I would never have thought of going whalewatching – thats so cool, adding it to the list

  16. Amy

    That looks amazing! When we were in NZ in 2017, the earthquake had destroyed the road between Christchurch and Kaikoura. Kaikoura was WAY out of the way, unfortunately. But another excuse for us to head back

  17. Melinda

    Whales and sealpups! I love animals of all kinds so this would be right up my alley. Love it! ❤

  18. Niry

    Whale watching is such a great experience. Sri lanka is also popular for whale watching

  19. Alanna

    What an incredible experience!! I’ve gone whale watching in California but the turquoise water in NZ is unmatched! 😁

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