Why Kaikoura Should Be on Your South Island Itinerary

On the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, nestled between the wild Pacific Ocean and the Seaward Kaikoura mountains, Maike van der Heide knows what makes Kaikoura special.


Photo © iStock/tsvibrav

It might be a small town, but it sure packs a punch when it comes to adventure and wildlife. 

Best known for its year-round population of sperm whales, Kaikoura also teems with other marine mammals and birds – you’d be hard-pressed to leave without spotting at least one seal.

Community Earthquake Recovery and a New Landscape

The area was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November 2016. The earthquake lifted the seafloor by meters off the coast, permanently changing the coastline. Now, visitors have the unique opportunity to see the results of nature’s raw power firsthand in the dramatically changing landscapes.

The impact of the earthquake can be seen off the coast, where the sea floor has risen, now on display for all to see. Photo credit: iStock

The Government opened its coffers wide to reinstate Kaikoura’s uplifted marina, where tour boats were left stranded. They rebuilt the destroyed State Highway 1 and the railway line between Marlborough and Christchurch – even employing full-time “seal wranglers” to protect the seals that famously live and breed here.

As a silver lining, new and fascinating natural phenomenon was discovered after the quake, including springs bubbling from the seafloor off the Kaikoura Peninsula. Dubbed Hope Springs, they were found by Kaikoura Kayaks’ local owner, who now offers guided tours to the site.

Surf breaks around Kaikoura were enhanced by the uplift, particularly at Gooch’s Beach, a short stroll from Kaikoura’s center. This is now tame enough for all ages to enjoy – surf school Boardsilly already holds classes there. Also revealed were perfectly spherical rocks, similar to the famous Moeraki Boulders.

Kaikoura Peninsula

Take the three-hour loop hike along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway for a short, informative hike (thanks to information panels along the way). Just be sure to look up every once in a while to spot local wildlife.

Mt Fyffe

If you’re feeling up for the challenge, hike to the summit of Mt Fyffe for the best views of Kaikoura. It’ll take eight hours (return) to reach the top, at 5,255ft (1,602m), or five hours to the hut (which also has good views).

Mt Fyffe Hut in winter, covered in snow. Photo credit: iStock

Where to Go for Culture

Kaikoura is home to the people of Ngati Kuri, a hapu (sub-tribe) of the major South Island iwi (tribe) Ngai Tahu. They own Whale Watch and their base is the spectacularly situated Takahanga Marae.

After the earthquake, the marae opened its doors to hundreds of stranded tourists for shelter and food – including Kaikoura's famous crayfish.

Maori Tours Kaikoura offers cultural experiences, including a visit to the marae’s beautiful exterior grounds.

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Whale Watching

For most visitors, Kaikoura is synonymous with whales. Sperm whales are drawn year-round to the undersea Kaikoura Canyon, just 800m offshore. Other whale species are regularly spotted, and you’re likely to see dolphins, albatross, and penguins, which are all attracted to the canyon’s rich supply of food.

Whale Watch runs several tours per day on its large and comfortable catamarans, with guides seeking out whales before bobbing around next to them waiting for the quintessential fluke (tail) photo. Alternatively – particularly if seasickness is an issue – take to the air with Wings Over Whales Kaikoura or Kaikoura Helicopters for a birds’-eye view.

Humpback whale tail in Kaikoura. Photo credit: Pixabay

Wildlife Adventures

If you don’t mind squeezing into a full-body wetsuit and braving Pacific Ocean temperatures, why not get up close and personal with Kaikoura’s resident seals and dolphins?

Seal Swim Kaikoura will take you to snorkel with playful seals among the rocks, while Dolphin Encounter cruises out to meet the permanent population of dusky dolphins and albatross, either from the boat or in the water. 

Should your budget not stretch to all this touring, don’t worry, there’s wildlife everywhere. You’ll find the local seal colony and birdlife at the Kaikoura Peninsula – seals are often found sunning themselves in the carpark – or just spot them from the highway, preferably on a beach while indulging in some fresh Kaikoura crayfish for lunch.

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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