Kaikoura is on the east coast of the South Island, a couple hours’ drive down from Marlborough wine country. It’s a small town in a spectacular setting, nestled between the Seaward Kaikoura Range and the sea itself. Thanks to its particular marine topography – a nice comfy shelf near shore and then a steep drop to the bottom of the ocean – the area is particularly rich with creatures of the finned and winged variety.
Kaikoura is the interaction-with-marine-animals capital of New Zealand, with assorted whale watching, dolphin viewing, albatross stalking opportunities. You can also swim with dolphins and seals (not at the same time… or the same cruise… you must, of course, purchase two different tickets, neither of them cheap).
I really wanted to interact with marine wildlife, but having blown my entire extreme activity budget black water rafting through Waitomo, I couldn’t justify the cost. So I drove up to the Point Kean carpark, a scenic spot at the end of the peninsula along which Kaikoura has developed.
And there I discovered, at least at high tide, interaction with marine wildlife cost nothing at all.
My first trip was late afternoon, at low tide, to see the seal colony that hangs out on the rocks just off the point. They were there alright, dozens of shiny brown comma-shapes sprawled on rocks about a quarter-mile offshore. Near, but not near enough to photograph.
The next morning, just for fun, I headed out to the point again. It was high tide and the seals were all over the place. No, I don’t mean in the water or on the shore. I mean in the car park, snoozing under trees, curled beside rocks, zonked out on the trails like drunk frat boys sleeping off a particularly rowdy Saturday night.
I almost stepped on one (there’s interaction for ya). While trying to get a good angle of a mom seal sleeping beside the “do not disturb the seals” sign, I looked down a half-second before putting my foot on her baby, who was curled up between two rocks, sleeping hard, its little sides heaving in and out with each deep breath and its whole body quivering with its fast pulse. It was sleeping the same way my friends’ children sleep after a day spent running and shrieking and laughing through Disneyworld.
I just stared at it for a long time, figuring I’d already breached the “ten meter distance” rule about staying away from the seals, why move? I had the uncontrollable urge to pet it but resisted. I wanted to hug it. I wanted to pull a blanket up to its chin and give it warm milk and some kind of seaweed cookie. Most of all, I desperately wanted to know the little fella was going to be okay.
That’s the thing about seeing animals in the wild, I think. In a zoo, you can marvel at their dexterity, or their musculature, or the way some of them look at you as if they have an uncanny understanding of their situation, both good and bad.
In the wild, though, whether it’s a kiwi or a wallaby or a baby seal, you know their odds, and you understand what they’re up against just to survive long enough to continue the species, nevermind enjoy themselves.
After a long and contemplative while, I left the baby seal and its kin snoozing peacefully, hoping that the orcas and sharks that prowl the Kaikoura waters just pass that little guy by. Eat a fat and tasty tourist instead, fellas. There’s a surplus of those, trust me.
On the way back from the point, I stopped at a mobile seafood BBQ and tried a crayfish fritter (Kaikoura is famous for its crayfish – what Americans would call rock lobster). Meh. It was better than the whitebait atrocity, but then, I suspect, so would a can of catfood. Too much egg in the batter, cooked at too low a temp so it was all soggy. Not terrible, but not memorable, either. At least this time I got it with rice instead of bread.