Sunday 17 July 2016

New Zealand Adventures : 17. Animal Friends of Kaikoura, Whale Rider, Aquarium Volunteering, and Flying a Plane!

Kia Ora!

Greetings from mid- winter here in Aotearoa!

But here's a introductory video diary from my visit on route to the pretty peninsula whale town of Kaikoura

Leaving Nelson town, I hitched a ride to Blenheim on the east coast heading south from the ferry terminal I had exited a month earlier, seemed so soon I was back that way again when I began hitchiking again from the Blenheim border onto Highway 1, the longest running highway that runs the entire length of New Zealand right through the North and South Island. I managed to get a ride to the 24km to Seddon and then the rest of the highway to the place where you can connect the sea, mountains and sky - Kaikoura

The Kaikoura Ranges overlooking the town and the South Pacific Ocean which was heavily settled by the Maori who were moa hunters 800 - 1000 years ago with evidence of the biggest moa egg ever discovered at 2400mm long. It was settled when Maori leader Tama ki Te Rangi arrived in the area tired and hungry and found an abundance of crayfish, naming the area 'Te Ahi Kaikoura a Tama ki Te Rangi' - the fire that cooked the cray fish of Tama ki Te Rangi. It was then established as a whaling station from 1843 to 1922 until sheep farming and agriculture took over.

Charming art work on the public toilets in the township..

Due to Kaikoura's ocean current and continental shelf conditions, the sea bed gradually slopes away from the land and then plunges into deep water off shore known as the 'Kaikoura Canyon'. Combine this with a southerly current hitting the continental shelf, it uplifts the nutrients from the ocean floor to entice marine animals into a feeding zone - so basically Kaikoura is one of the best places to easily spot marine life like whales, dolphins, penguins and birds of New Zealand as it is really full of 'kai'.

Kaikoura is obviously very proud of their marine life which brings tourist to the town, which is shown through the many marine themed artwork on the public buildings.

New Zealand fur seals heavily populate the coastline of Kaikoura (we could even see them lounging on the shore rocks as we were driving in) and walking out towards the peninsula to Point Kean would take me to a seal colony, or basically the hippest place in Kaikoura to hang when you're a fur seal!

The peninsula itself 'Taumanu o Te Waka a Maui'....any ideas? you must have read some of these words alot over my blog of the last 9 months - well it is believed by the Ngai Tahu Maori tribe to be the seat where the demi god Maui placed his feet on his canoe when he fished up the North Island. Remember, the South Island is known as Te Waka o Maui? - the canoe of Maui.

Well as I was admiring the gorgeous Kaikoura ranges rising in the backdrop of the bay, look what took me by surprise......this monstrous thing blocking my way.

A fur seal lazing right in the footpath! eekkk! I almost fell over him. How dare he. He is pretty cute though.

You're not meant to make sudden movements around them as it may startle them and could bite in defense - so I tip toed round him as he slumbered, not that he was bothered, he just lift up his head, blinked his dreamy eyes a few times at me and then was happy to return to his slumber disinterested ha!

This gentleman though I think had a bit more to say!

The place to be if you're a seal...

You have to admit, they are pretty cute aren't they? Most of the time they just lazy around contently and you can sit on the rocks with them surrounding you.... ah to be a seal...go for a dip anytime you want, bathe in the sun and have the odd scratch and sneeze.

Looking out east onto the South Pacific, I'm sure I see a mammal rising in and out of the water in the distance...and tell myself it was an orca....why not?

I soon discover returning to the colony down below that more seals have decided to block the walkway like security guards, making the other tourists scarper ha!

Just who do they think they are?...running the joint??? well....actually yeah....

They are....

And so the sun starts to set over the ridge of the ranges to mark the close of another winters day in NZ - nice for the seal to wave me off though....:) take care, come again!

Whale Rider

Whales are sacred mammals to New Zealand and the Maori, it is believed that mythical ancestor Paikea rode on a whale Tohora who carried him to a new life in Aotearoa and his decendants still inhabiting Kaikoura today. Paikea, is also the Maori world for 'humpback' and the whales are believed to be guardians of Kaikoura watching over the bay. representing the spiritual bond between the human world and the natural world. 

So....don't say nasty things about Whales!

So, as I said in the video on the beach, Kaikoura is the whale watching capital of New Zealand with the opportunity to join a boat trip out to see the Sperm Whales in the wild as whales and dolphins should be viewed. Whale Watch , a Maori owned company (which is what was attractive) is the popular way to see the cetaceans in this area, so I decided to bite the bullet, put up with the sea sickness on the swelling ocean to go out to sea and see them.

I was hanging on to the hope I'd finally get to see an orca....

The modern catamaran rightfully called 'Paikea' was the boat that would take me out and we motored for over 2 miles from the coast with engines that minimise underwater noise which is much healthier and safer for us and the sea life. Sounds waves pass through the oil on the whales bodies where it is amplified and have been recorded as one of the worlds loudest animals. Once we arrived in the Whale ground area, the skipper lowered a tracking pole device into the water for any signs of Sperm Whales clicking nearby.....there we motored on over the waves to find them.

We did. After seeing a few albatross's flying across the bow and making a stop to watch a seal devouring an octopus, we came across four Sperm whales. On average, they will have 1 to 2 whale sightings per tour, so we were very lucky! The Sperm whales primarily viewed off the Kaikoura coastline are all male and keep in loose pods so are sometimes several miles between eachother. They have thicker blubber which is the dutch word for 'wobble' so can withstand the cold arctic New Zealand waters than the females who prefer the warmer tropical northern seas.  

All I could do was stare at them overwhelmingly from the deck getting teary eyed with 'Will You Be There' going through my head as they swam free....

Whales are actually really fascinating mammals. The Sperm whale in particular are the largest toothed whales and the forth largest living of the Great whale family. These male whales can grow to a length of 15-20 metres and weigh between 40-60 tonnes! Thats alot of whale!

Under the water....they look like this

Well if they weigh so much, how do they float? They have large quantities of oil in their bodies which makes them naturally buoyant in water. The whale can alter its buoyancy itself by regulating the spermaceti oil in its head to make them stay afloat. The 30-40 cm thick layer of their blubber surrounds its vital organs, acting like a wetsuit and insulating the whale from cold water.

The Sperm whale itself has the largest brain of any living mammal, the size of a basketball which is 7 times bigger than a human brain.

Each of their teeth (20-30 of them) can be 20cm long and weigh up to 1 kilo which snap shut and swallow their food whole. The Sperm whale can use its sonar not only to locate its prey but to stun or kill it. They usually feed on varieties of fish but their preferred diet is squid, especially the Giant squid.

In their life cycle, the male Sperm whale will spend the first 8-12 years of their life with the family pod, with the females assisting the calves for 2 years until they are confident swimmers. When they reach puberty at 10 years old, they leave the family pod and form a 'bachelor pod' to move on to feeding grounds and mate when they are fully grown.

They can also live as long as a human being - 70 years! Wise old whale. 

When the whale surfaces to expose itself to the cold air, the oil cools down to form a solid wax which is denser in water and helps the whale dive and descend beneath the surface. Getting one more puff of air out of its blow hole, arching its back and slowly submerging down into the deep blue sea for 40 - 60 minutes before resurfacing - giving us that 'tail shot' to say goodbye. Marine researchers can identify whales by the distinctive shape and markings of its mighty tail and can dive to depths over 1,000 + metres.

But despite the seasickness, it was beautiful to see these majestic mammals in their natural environment where they should be.

Aquarium Volunteering

One of the main reasons I had come to spend time in New Zealand was because the Pacific area has the richest marine life in the world and Kaikoura being one of the best places to view marine life in New Zealand, I got lucky landing a volunteering job at the Kaikoura Aquarium and Marine Centre.

There's alot more to it than you think!

A sweet little aquarium with all the displays and exhibits hand made so alot of work has gone into creating it! It first started in 2011 by a kiwi girl called Meghan Bosch who was a marine biologist and originally she operated the aquarium out of a shipping container until she moved it into this building on the Kaikoura wharf that was an old fish processing building and paua seedling plant. It currently operates as a not-for-profit organisation with the main focus to act as an education centre but has plans to expand with research facilities for the community and some conservation initiatives like a rehabilitation room for sick marine life.

As the aquarium is not for profit, its mainly manned by volunteers and I wanted to use my time in Kaikoura to experience working in a aquarium and learn more about the marine life surrounding Aotearoa. Most of the animals in the aquarium were fish but also held sharks, crayfish, shrimps. seahorses, sea urchins, paua, seastars, sea cucumbers and the star attraction 'Oscar' the Octopus.

Alot of the animals were donated by fisherman who had caught them in their nets and brought them to the marine centre so the community could have a chance to come and see them.

One of the large tank rooms, meaning there is always mopping up water to do, here we house 'Oscar' the octopus, the carpet sharks and the 'touch tanks' for visitors to come see the animals without glass.

The water tanks can get very murky so one of the jobs is to clean out the animals tanks with fresh sea water we pump from beside the wharf.

The main focus of the Aquarium is to be a educational centre for the public, especially kids, so its nice to see them so enthusiastic about the sea animals and tell them about them to their eager minds.

The amount of work that has gone into making all the information displays and exhibit rooms shows real passion for the marine environment here in Kaikoura. One of the special attractions is the glow in the dark canyon room where visitors can experience what life lurks under the waters here and hear the sounds of sperm whales clicking. In February 2013, a giant squid washed up on the South Bay and brought to the aquarium and dissected on NZ National Television. It was kept here for a while on display in 'The Giant Squid Room' but it ended up costing too much to preserve and was sent to the University of Otago school of Marine Studies.

Artwork of Maui pulling up the North Island from his waka i.e. The South Island. I helped do the finishing touches to the piece as the original artist abandoned it.

Tui, the aquarium doggie! she liked to come to the beach to hunt for seaweed and amphipods

Everyday the aquarium casts out a fish trap off the wharf to catch any food for the animals and if any specimens of interest our caught to exhibit to the public.

Of course, as with a wildlife park, the animals need to be fed, but not everyday so there's a big fridge full of frozen squid and fish to be cut up. You have to be careful not to leave rotting meat in the tanks as it can make the water dirty and make the fish sick.

One of my jobs is to thaw out Squid bait and cut it into different sizes for the animals.

This can be quite messy and smelly but we also needed to go search for seaweed on the beach to feed to the sea urchins and paua - 'the vegetarians' of the aquarium and to replace any rotten seaweed that is contaminating the tanks. Under the fresh seaweed, you'll find amphipods which are like sea lice and crustaceans that the seahorses like to eat - you have to scoop them up quickly before they bury themselves deeper into the beach stones and seive them through a vegetable steamer into a bucket.

Pieces of marine treasure, New Zealand Paua shell washed up on the beach front to be used for jewellery making.

Aswell as feeding, there needs to be tank cleaning which can last a whole day, catching the animals, sucking out all the dirty water, wiping the tanks and then pumping clean seawater from the side of the wharf.

Aussie volunteer Bob and I having a go at cleaning the tanks and catching the animals..we were quite a team and had to do a lot of guessing of trial and error of taking care of an aquarium!

Pumping fresh seawater from the wharf edge to refill the tanks. You're meant to do it at high tide but sometimes it can be hard to wait for clear seawater - the aquarium has plans to get a better filtering system so the animals can get even more filtered clean seawater.

The Carpet sharks..They are two female sharks and I think they are pretty cute..they usually bury themselves in sand so there are plans to put sand in the bottom of their tank to simulate their life in the ocean. Sometimes they are called 'Dog Fish' as when they feel threatened then inhale to make themselves bloated and exhale with a sound like a barking dog. They are pretty docile sharks that spend alot of time, bumping noses and chilling on the bottom of their tank. Sharks in general have sandpaper texture to their skin with tiny pimples covering the surface - water currents naturally form around these pimples and prevents water resistance when the shark is swimming which explains why they can speed through the water like they do. Nature hey....

The two ladies....

Scorpion Fish, you can't touch these fellas as they have spikes with venomous mucus on them, so they live up to their namesake

When you clean the tanks, you have to pretty much rescue all the animals out as the water is getting pumped out of their tank and back into the sea, until we reverse the process and pump fresh clean seawater back in. Usually its the reason fish die - water quality or lack of oxygen. The touch tanks are cool as they let visitors and their kids touch the fish and animals in them - the black things sticking to the sides of the tank are duck billed limpets which, when you stroke their backs, split their outer skin and reveal their shell - pretty cool. Anemones are also in the touch tanks which will give seahorses and other fish a sting but when touched they cannot penetrate the human skin - they don't hurt!

Happy Carpet Shark - I was working at the aquarium during the NZ school holidays so it involved talking to the kids about the animals and also refraining them from trying to hook the sharks up in nets!

We also had a school holiday competition to name the two Carpet Sharks in the tank - had a few pretty original suggestions... I think 'Sharky McShark' was my favourite. But in the end, we chose to name the two lady sharks 'Frankie and Pearl' when the week was out.

'Oscar' the Octopus was the star attraction and crowd pleaser of the aquarium. I named him Oscar as kids didn't feel scared towards him if he had a friendly name. Oscar was brought in to the aquarium when he got caught up in a fisherman's net and is about a year old. He will only live until he is about 2 - 3 years old so when a replacement octopus comes in to the aquarium, he'll be set free back into the ocean. He's very easy to get attached to, he's a sweet little octopus who can be a little bit shy.

But octopus' are fascinating marine animals. They are nocturnal animals really and like to eat at night, mainly crab and fish. They have 9 brains, yes 9 brains - one in each tentacle and one in his mantle and has 3 hearts - so he's got a lot of love to give! His third tentacle has a modified structure so he can pass sperm to the female during mating and then dies a few months later - so I hope Oscar stays single!

They also have this amazing ability to change their skin and eye colour to match the shades of their surroundings. Octopus' are also known as the escape artists of the sea world and can easily escape from their tanks and make themselves so small and slim, they can sliver through small spaces like drainpipes. I have to scoop him up with a net into a bucket and take him back and forth between his tanks, which can take a while as he isn't always that co-operative!

Getting Oscar back into his tank - catching an octopus wasn't something I thought I'd ever do!

After a while he goes willingly and retreats back into his bell house in his night tank.

Off the subject off water animals - when Janelle, the owner of the Aquarium and a marine biologist came back - she had rescued a black backed juvenile gull called 'Sergeant Gully' which had hurt its foot after it was caught on a fence, As they grow into adult hood, their feathers turn white and back turns to black - so really he was a teenage boy we had to try and inject antibiotics into his food and feed him, water and wash his wounds which wasn't always particularly easy. It was cool to shadow her for a few days there as I could learn so much more about the animals to tell the visitors. He was a very lucky gull to get all this attention from two women!

View from the office on the wharf, stunning to see the sun set over the Kaikoura ranges. I sometimes spent some nights sleeping in Janelle's camper van or even spending the night in the aquarium itself and seeing the sun rise over the South Pacific. Had to experience it though.

Flying a Plane!

Wow what an opportunity!

During my time here in Kaikoura, I got this great deal on an experience 'Pilot-A-Plane' where I could have a flying lesson in a two seat C-150 small aircraft 'Cessna' by an flying instructor from Kaikoura Air. 

Wow to take to the skies with me in the pilot seat!

Here she is, introducing Cessna, a trial flight plane which holds about 100 litres of fuel and she was going to be mine to fly for the frosty mid-winter morning, 

In the pilots seat - who always sits on the left of the aircraft. My co-pilot and instructor Shannon first briefed me with how the plane maneuvers using a plane model and took my weight for the pilot log book. 

You have to pretty much scrunch yourself up to duck and slide inside the small cockpit, but once in, Shannon showed me the checks you do on a plane and the pedals that steer the wheels and pushing buttons to check the wings and rudder at the back. Once he was happy, he told me how to ascend and descend with the steering and we steered to the run way to warm the engine.....then it was all systems go and I was going to take to the sky!

Planning for take 'Top Gun' moment

And the sky is mine!

Once we were at 500 ft, Shannon instructed me what to do to keep an eye over the front of the plane and use bearings to direct the plane and control it at that height and maneuver us around the Kaikoura coastline. I'm still baffled how these things defy gravity and fly but its alot of fun and ultimate freedom being on top of the world. It seems alot more straightforward to control than driving a car as you only need to apply slight pressure to maneuver the plane smoothly in the air with the controls rather than the pedals which are more jerky and better for land.

The Kaikoura ranges! I now see why most pilots where sunglasses as being on top of the world means your also close friends with the sun! Looking down over the South Pacific, I did try to spot any marine life that may be passing by beneath us.

But, we flew around for a good 45 minutes communicating over headsets and hearing the oncoming reports of surrounding aircrafts up on the mountain side and who were occupying the runway. It was a really cool insight into the job of a pilot and the many hours of flying you need under your aviation belt to get a licence.  

Me and my instructor Shannon 

And talking of licences, for completing the trial flight - you are awarded a certificate to be logged in a pilots log book and use towards any future aviation training..... which means I am 5% complete towards a pilots licence. Wahooh!

There you have it, the proof - I can pilot a plane!

Well folks or whanua as the Maori say....this is where I leave you and that is all from my time here in beautiful Kaikoura which I have thoroughly enjoyed the past couple of weeks - I've taken care of an aquarium, flown a plane, watched Sperm Whales and invited myself to a seal party - as you get up to in a 2 week stay in New Zealand.

Except this week we had a bit of drama when I was just about to get in the shower at a hostel and a giant fire is burning right outside my dorm window...yikes....lucky I didn't get into the shower.

But time holds back for noone and its time to move on further south and see a little bit more of New Zealand before I reach my final destination of Christchurch.

Thanks for reading and hope you're having some adventures of your own.

Kia Ora,

Kaikoura, New Zealand.

With Lonely Planet Travel Guides New Zealand 


  1. ohh!! Dear such a great trip. i like your adventure photo.

    1. Thank you very much - I have more photos on my instagram account @salboltontravel

  2. Very good post! We will be linking to this great post on our
    site. Keep up the great writing.

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words. I try to set my blog apart but writing about niche topics but am currently working on a full length travel book so please follow me on twitter or stay posted for updates!


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