Top eco-adventures in Kaikōura

Wildlife encounters and friendly locals make for an unforgettable visit on New Zealand's Pacific Coast

Dolphins frolic in the waters off Kaikōura, New Zealand.
Dolphins frolic in the waters off Kaikōura, New Zealand.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

Fronting the Pacific coast of New Zealand’s South Island and just a two-hour drive north from Christchurch, the Kaikōura Peninsula offers ethereal vistas framed by a wall of 2,600-metre mountains that plunge into the underwater Kaikōura Canyon, a nearly 1,300-metre-deep chasm a half mile offshore that’s part of the abyssal Kermadec Trench system. In the winter months, the peaks glitter with snow and the area between the sea and mountains is thick with mist, giving it an otherworldly appeal. The Instagram-worthy views aren’t Kaikōura’s only attraction. Its waters teem with sperm whales, orcas, dusky dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, and many species of seabirds, making the town of Kaikōura the perfect place to launch a marine safari. Indeed, wildlife has always been the heart of the community. Kaikōura’s first European settlers came here for whaling in 1842. Today the focus is on enjoying wildlife—and protecting it for the delight of locals and travelers. “Kaikōura is a magic place to call home,” says community leader and Department of Conservation Manager Brett Cowan. “The marine life is the lifeblood of our community. It’s what brings us together and unites us. We’re grateful that we have these special taonga, or precious gifts, that have been handed down by our ancestors for us to care for today.”   

Kaikōura, a coastal town on New Zealand’s South Island, is known for its abundant marine wildlife including seals, whales and dolphins.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

Explore

There are a number of ways to experience Kaikōura’s abundant marine life.

By sea: The Kermadec Trench, with its mix of cold and warm ocean currents, means the big whales comes in close, drawn by the abundance of food. Whale Watch Kaikōura, owned and operated by the local Ngāti Kuri people since 1987, specializes in introducing visitors to the leviathans. Other water-based encounters include swimming among frisky pods of wild dusky dolphins or kayaking with fur seals, dolphins, and penguins. (Remember the viral video of a seal slapping a kayaker with an octopus? That’s Kaikōura.)

By land: The Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway was designed for visitors to easily see and experience the wildlife. It can be tackled in sections or in a full three-hour trek. Beginning from the town centre, the path takes you along clifftops and the seashore, past seabird colonies (petrels, mollymawks, wandering and royal albatrosses), fur seal colonies, and historic Māori sites. Suitable for families, this easy excursion affords encounters with everything that makes Kaikōura special.

By air: A scenic plane flight is a great way to spot whales, as well as take in the magnitude of Kaikōura’s dramatic landscape.

Nin's Bin, a diner serving up fresh local seafood since the 1970s, is a welcome sight for hungry travellers driving up the coast from Christchurch and Kaikōura.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

Wine & Dine

Seafood is what’s on the menu here, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Nin’s Bin, a roadside haunt, keeps it simple with a two-item menu: mussels and crayfish. New Zealand’s crayfish closely resembles a Maine lobster, but without the massive front claws. Dining on it is a local tradition. In fact, Kaikōura’s name in the Māori language comes from kai (food) and koura (crayfish).

The Pier Hotel, located on the Kaikōura waterfront and an institution since 1885, is famous for its crayfish as well as other mouthwatering temptations like paua (abalone), Canterbury lamb shank, and potato and kumara (sweet potato) rösti. Check out their list of New Zealand wines, order a glass, enjoy the view, and talk to the locals.

Just above Jimmy Armers Beach, Kaikōura Seafood BBQ is another long-standing favourite, with fresh seafood like scallops and crayfish on offer.

Artistry 

The true artistry of Kaikōura is tradition. Māori have lived in Kaikoura for more than 800 years; the Ngāti Kuri people, a sub-group of the Ngāi Tahu, are the largest iwi (tribe) on the South Island. Spend time with Māori Tours, a family owned and operated cultural experience that shares the legends, history, and storytelling of the Kaikōura region.

Fyffe House, the seaside remnant of Kaikōura’s 1842 Whaiopuka whaling station, is the town’s oldest building. Whalebones form the pink house’s foundations, and a tour of its interior provides insight into the resourcefulness early settlers needed to coexist withKaikōura’s harsh and beautiful landscape.

A seal takes shore leave. Marine wildlife is easy to see along the coast of Kaikōura.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

Engage

November 2016 reminded Kaikōura—and New Zealand—that its wildness will never be tamed. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake temporarily cut off the town from the rest of the country. Since then Kaikōura, always a place of strength, rebounded and is all the more welcoming of visitors. A visit to the Kaikōura Museum is an ideal place to learn about the quake and about Kaikōura’s journey—past, present, and future.

Top Tip

Many past visitors to Kaikōura were dismayed to learn that Ōhau Point, a waterfall and pool that acted as a nursery for juvenile fur seals, was damaged after the 2016 quake. Although the waterfall walkway is still closed, a “safe stopping area” was recently opened so visitors can once again view these enchanting pups in their natural habitat. You must keep at least 20 metres from the seals, but don’t miss the opportunity to see one of Kaikoura’s treasures.

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