Kaikoura, two hours drive north of Christchurch on New Zealand's south island, lies in the sun belt of New Zealand. It averages 2000 hours of sunshine a year and in winter, high mountains are snow-clad.
Around 180,000 years ago, periods of rapid uplift raised layers of limestone and siltstone from the ocean floor, forming twisted and weathered outcrops making up the peninsula. Once an island, the peninsula was joined to the mainland by steep plains built up from debris swept from the mountains in the Hapuka and Kowhai rivers.
In 1843 the first shore whaling station was established by Captain Robert Fyffe. His home, Fyffe House, built in 1860, still stands on its whalebone piles. Other whaling stations followed, but after 1850 whale numbers declined and their exploitation became uneconomic. Sheep and goats were introduced and so began a farming district.
As recently as the 1980s, residents of Kaikoura were carving a meagre living from fishing and farming, but once the world realised that it is one of the only places on the planet where whales can be seen in their natural habitat, the place started booming. Eco-tourism is alive and well.
It is wonderful to know that a town which was built on the slaughter of whales is now reaping the benefits of protecting and enjoying their existence.
There is a strong emphasis in Kaikoura on the conservation of marine life combined with a sustainable tourist industry. In 1978 the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed ensuring total protection of whales, dolphins and seals.
Several whale species can be seen off Kaikoura at different times of the year, but there are almost always sperm whales to be spotted. Males measure up to 15 metres and females up to 11. Adolescent males enjoy the rich diet provided by the Kaikoura waters, building their strength as they move to the warm north mating grounds. Their flukes lift clear at the start of a deep dive which can be from one to three kilometres. They can hold their breath for up to two hours.
Clean, sharp Orca fins are often sighted and schools of pilot whales visit. Dolphins, fur seals (hunted almost to extinction) and seabirds love the rich harvest of the area.
A truly wonderful way to enjoy not only the marine life but the superb coastline is hovering above it in a Cessna 172 or Gipland Airvan.
Wings over Whales is located just eight kilometres south of Kaikoura. They provide comfortable flights with experienced pilots who give authoritative commentary.
In a 30-minute flight you will see whales preparing to dive and up to 500 dusky dolphins cavorting with each other. Sometimes southern rights, humpbacks, fins, sei, brydes, pilots, southern bottlenose and the mighty blue whales appear. Orcas are less frequent visitors, but are certainly out there. Wings over Whales boasts a 95 percent sighting rate.
The flight goes over Kaikoura Peninsula where you see evidence of Maori fortifications (Pa sites), New Zealand fur seals resting on rocks and the Kaikoura township. Conditions permitting, you will marvel at a spectacular flight over the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges which rise to 2800 metres.
After the flight you are invited to relax in the terminal with a light meal and drink. The lounge overlooks the sea and mountains.
Fifteen minutes north of Kaikoura is Hapuku Lodge. It sits between the mountains and the ocean on a deer stud and olive farm. It was designed as a contemporary country inn with six guest rooms, a separate apartment and its own café.
Bedrooms have handcrafted furniture and bathrooms have heated floors and towel racks and generous showerheads. Tilt-swing windows take in all of the scenery.
The café has won awards for both its food and coffee. Specialties are seafood, venison and vegetarian dishes and they have a wide selection of south island brewed beers more than 80 and some excellent south island wines.