Saturday, 27 February 1993

1993 New Zealand Part 5

Lake Tekapo and Kaikoura

I was now on my way to Kaikoura, a whale watching hot spot in New Zealand but first I had to get there and I had a fair distance to drive. On the way I had planned to try and see black stilt, possibly one of the rarest birds in the world but essentially an all dark black winged stilt. There was a breeding centre that had been established near the town of Twizel and that was my next stop. On the way I managed to see what my Collins New Zealand bird guide calls a spur-winged plover however it cannot really be called that and should go under the name of masked lapwing, unless of course I had actually stumbled across a first for New Zealand but I don't think so.

On the way to Twizel is Omarama and the Ahurri River and here I had: Lapwing 4, caspian tern 3, black-billed tern 2, white-faced heron 1 and welcome swallow 10.
Spur-winged Plover, not really, more like a masked lapwing.

I stopped of at the black stilt breeding centre near Twizel and managed to see a black stilt, albeit one that forms part of the captive breeding population.
Black Stilt

Nevertheless a very rare bird and severely under threat from mans persistent attempt to meddle with nature. The introduction of stoats to New Zealand has almost been the demise of this delicate species, it is hanging onto existence by a thread. Only the foresight of a few dedicated conservationists will hopefully allow it to continue to exist. You would have hoped that at the time of writing in 2008, 15 years since my trip, I could have said that the human species would have learnt from its past mistakes in messing with nature but unfortunately no such luck.

On the horizon another mountainous region started to appear this time the islands famous winter resort area holding the islands highest snow clad peak of Mount Cook.

On getting nearer to Lake Tekapo the scenery started to get a more stunning with the impressive Ben Ohau Range coming into view and the edge of the lake looking great in the late afternoon light.

I checked into the local YHA at the town of Lake Tekapo but with it's proximity to Mount Cook it was very popular and I had to make do with one of the tents for the night.

This was not a problem in the slightest as the previous nights sleep had not been all that great at Jackson Bay (remembering my mosquito mates) and the view I awoke to in the morning was just awesome.
I unzipped the tent and looked out to this....just incredible.

It was at this YHA that I met a gentleman who I think was called Jim. One of my other interests is military history and on talking to Jim I found out that he had been in the Royal Air Force in WWII as a rear gunner in Halifax bombers. He mentioned that one of the duties of his squadron had been to drop window to try and hide the main bomber force from German radar. Windo comprised of aluminium stips ciut to the same length as the wavelength used by German radar, effectively blocking out any signal being given by an allied bomber. Jim was on a similar youth hostel based trip as myself and from then on we bumped into each other every now and then. At one hostel Jim pointed out a couple of more elderly men and told me that they were German and soldiers also from WWII and he had no time for them. Quite how he knew I'm not sure, maybe old soldiers instinct, but the most interesting thing for me was that he considered them to have been in the SS. During that night at the same hostel I shared a small male dormitory with the two Germans, I was itching to talk to them but just couldn't pluck up the courage or really find the right opening statement, something like 'Hi there, I'm really interested in military history and understand that you two might have been in the SS?' wouldn't really have worked too well!

Around the shoreline of the lake I managed to see a Pukeko, sort of New Zealands equivalent of a purple gallinule or purple people eater for those in the know.

That morning I left Lake Tekapo and headed off for Kaikoura, for the most part I was the only car on the road and enjoyed travelling at speed with the music cassettes I had brought along for the trip blaring out at considerable volume, down!

For the most part the rest of the trip was uneventful and I finally started to get close to the Kaikoura Peninsula, which you can just about make put in the distance.

Kaikoura is a great place to see whales and dolphins, especially sperm whales. The shelf edge here is extremely close to the coast and that means very accessible deep water which is ideal habitat for sperm whales. I drove through the town of Kaikoura and passed the post office which was very close to an inlet where a cafe with outside tables was located the significance of which will become clear. The youth hostel was on the eastern side of town nearer to the peninsular tip.

After checking in I returned to town and passed the inlet/post office and cafe again to find one of the few whale watching operators where I could book my trip. I was here for two nights and managed top get on a trip for the next day which was quite lucky as they were very popular. So I returned to the hostel passing the inlet and cafe once again, so that was now 3 times.
Next day I went to the jetty and joined the boatload of similar cetacean enthusiast climbing aboard a large rib with a couple of even larger outboards attached to its' stern. We were given life jackets and packed into the vessel. As the powerful engines started and the boat gained speed the bow lifted into the air and we just flew out of the harbour toward where the sperm whales might hopefully be. It was a real adrenaline rush and almost worth the fee for the trip in itself. The good thing about the operator I had chosen was that they were interested in other aspects of natural history than just the cetaceans so it wasn't too long before they had seen an albatross on the water which turned out to be a juvenile wandering albatross.
Juvenile Wandering Albatross

To try and find a sperm whale the boat was using a hydrophone to detect the clicks of a whale as it started its ascent toward the surface. Like all mammals whales need to breath air so need to come to the surface in order to replenish the stocks in their large bodies. Usually they stay at the surface for a few minutes before diving beneath the surface again. The first breath on surfacing is usually a deep one as the whale breathing causes puffs of water vapour to appear on its outward breaths called blows. A whales blow is generally quite easy to see with the sperm whale being no exception. The driver of our boat on hearing some clicks that meant a whale in our vicinity was about to surface sped to the approximate location and it wasn't long before I was experiencing my very first sperm whale.
Sperm Whale & blow

In the picture above you are seeing about half the animal with the blow or outward breath visible to the right of centre and the whales dorsal bump well to the left. Really at the surface the whale looks like a dark log it is not until it starts to dive that you start to see more of the animal and get an appreciation of its size and grace. Sperm whales are good value amongst cetaceans as they almost always show their 'flukes' or tail before they disappear below the surface.
Sperm Whale flukes

A dolphin species that is in the area in good numbers was dusky dolphin and these guys are true performers with a mix of back flips, head stands and general dolphin silliness they surrounded and entertained us. Also the group we had met could be seen from the coast road.

As with most nature experiences though, you have to share them with others and it wasn't too long before other boats started to arrive.

On the whale trip I had managed to see: sperm whale 1, dusky dolphin 150, white-fronted tern, wandering albatross 3, little blue penguin 5, black-fronted tern 3m black-browed albatross 1, grey headed albatross 1, mollymawk sp. 4, macronectes sp. 2, prion sp. 1, westland petrel , bullers shearwater, fluttering/Huttons shearwater, sooty shearwater, diving petrel sp. 1, Australian gannet 30, arctic skua 2,

It had been a great experience and all too quickly we started to head back to Kaikoura harbour but not before getting a chance to have a look at some New Zealand sea-lions hauled out on some rocks. Once a species that had almost been wiped out by man, luckily they have made a comeback.

Around Kaikoura headland I saw: Arctic skua 1, white-fronted tern, red-billed gull, black-billed gull, kelp gull, turnstone 40, bar-tailed godwit 2, black oystercatcher 4, southern pied oystercatcher 10, banded plover 5, spotted shag, pied cormorant, little pied cormorant 1, great cormorant 2, Australian gannet 1, Huttons/fluttering shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, westland/Parkinsons petrel 4

The next day after having driven past the inlet and cafe a few more times I went along the coats road to see if I could watch the dusky dolphins from there but there were none to be seen. I headed back into town and went back to the same operator on the off-chance that I could get on another trip but was kindly informed that none of the trips that had been out that day had seen anything, no dolphins and no sperm whales. Later it transpired that a guy in a plan flying over the area had seen a pod of killer whales entering the area and I expect that everything else swiftly moved out. So I had been lucky to have seen what I did and pleased my fortune I started the drive north to Picton to catch the ferry that would take me to north island and the rest of my trip.
On north island I would discover that in Kaikoura it is possible to get views of Hector's dolphin (a very rare species) which is quite often observed in the inlet by the cafe in the middle of town, doh!

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