Sometimes travel plans don’t work out. Sometimes that sucks. This is the story of how a failed attempt to fulfil a lifelong dream of swimming with dolphins led to an even more unique and moving wildlife encounter – an afternoon at a seal pup nursery in the woods.
THE DOLPHIN DREAM
I’ve travelled far and wide hoping to have the chance to swim with dolphins, but for one reason or another it never seems to work out. Either they’ve gone AWOL, there’s an endangered species nearby that prevents us from entering the water, or the weather conditions aren’t conducive to boat trips.
When I was planning my tour of New Zealand, one particular experience kept presenting itself as an unmissable opportunity – swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura. Pretty much every article I read on the country’s highlights told me I had to do it.
On my first night in Kaikoura, a gale blew so strong I feared that the walls of my hostel might fall down around me. By morning, there were uprooted trees and overturned lorries on the road outside. With a sinking feeling, I strolled around the corner to the Dolphin Encounter office.
Sure enough, despite the winds having died down, the ocean looking surprisingly calm, and a rainbow appearing over the town, I was told that conditions were too dangerous to take a boat out. I altered my itinerary, booked an extra night and waited patiently for another opportunity only to find that the scouts had been unable to locate the pod.
Thankfully, Kaikoura is not a difficult place to kill time. It’s one of the most picturesque coastal towns and there are plenty of walks around the headland. And then, there’s the seal pup nursery!
Just along the highway is a place called Ohau where seals leave their pups to play in the forest while they hunt for fish in the sea.
It’s unusual to see seals anywhere other than in the ocean or beside the sea, which is why the seal pup nursery in Ohau is so special. As you walk along the well-trodden paths, you encounter dozens of these adorable creatures and they’re not shy.
Sit yourself down on a tree stump or rock and the seal pups will likely come on over with an inquisitive expression on their faces.
Just a few minutes walk into the forest is a waterfall. This is the pups’ favourite playground. They splash around in the plunge pool for hours on end chasing fish and hopping in and out. Sometimes it’s so full that it’s hard to see where one body ends and another begins.
IS KAIKOURA WORTH THE GAMBLE
My advice to anyone debating whether or not a stay in Kaikoura is worthwhile would be to book yourself in for a night or two. This place is so charming, you’re unlikely to regret it, even if your whale or dolphin trip is cancelled for unavoidable reasons.
At worst, you will have a relaxing time wandering through beautiful scenery, watching the waves crash on the beach and getting tickled by the whiskers of a curious seal pup. With any luck you could be bobbing in the ocean, with a pod of 400 plus dolphins swimming dizzily in circles around you.
UPDATE: Tragically, Ohau Point was destroyed by a landslide during an earthquake on November 14, 2016. This did not happen during the pup rearing season and it is unclear at this time whether or not the seals will be able to return to the seal pup nursery or continue this behaviour nearby.
For more information on whale watching in Kaikoura, check out this whale watching trip Agata from Null ‘N’ Full went on with a company called Wings Over Whales.
GETTING TO KAIKOURA
Intercity Buses provide services to Kaikoura from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Picton (2 hours); Christchurch (3 hours); Nelson (5 hours). Further transfers are available from these locations. Use the booking tool below to search for a specific journey or click through to the Intercity website to learn about their flexipass and a wide range of day tours.
WHERE TO STAY
I stayed at Albatross Backpackers and it was fantastic. Everyone I met there was staying longer than they’d originally intended. It’s a great place to meet other travellers and the art corner and musical instruments ensure that people interact. They cooked everyone a meal on my first night and I met loads of people to go on day trips with. Interestingly, my dad even recommended it after visiting Kaikoura last year, which just goes to show it appeals to all kinds!