Sunday, 15 March 2015

“There He Blows”

"The whale makes a ticking noise like a grand father clock" said our Kakioura-based guide. The captain utilised an underwater microphone to listen to and navigate towards a whale far below us in the depths.  

We were hunting the Giant Sperm Whale. Not with spears as was popular on this east coast in the mid-19th to early 20th century, but with zoom lenses.

The Giant Sperm Whale is the largest of the toothed whales. We learnt that it doesn't use it's teeth for chewing, but for snapping and entrapping meals. It creates the loudest sound of any animal on earth, up to 230 decibels, to stun and kill it's prey. To put that into perspective, a modern jet engine at full rev is only 140 decibels!

We sailed over the deep Kaikoura underwater canyon (1600m deep and 5km wide) off the east coast of New Zealand’s south island trying to track these massive mammals down. The Sperm Whale could be diving at 1000 metres feeding on squid, grouper, tuna, ling, or king fish. Our guide explained they could dive for over two hours to over 3000 metres. We waited for one to surface, tracking its movements using the microphone.

Once the clicks stopped it meant he was getting ready to surface. We'd been on the water a while and a sense of disappointment began to spread amongst the punters. We all kept our eyes peeled on the waters surface, watching and waiting.

A blast of fine mist shot up! There he was at the surface! At first glance his back could be mistaken for a very large tree trunk. As he swam at the surface we realised we could see the top of his head and body (about two thirds of his length) like an exposed sand bar above the water.

The Sperm whales viewed off Kaikoura's coastline are all males. Male Sperm whales can grow to 20m and weigh between 40-60 tonnes. It is difficult to appreciate just how big these giants are! They come to these waters to feed and grow to maturity which may take up to 60 years. Cold currents converge here forcing nutrients to the surface providing rich pickings for these gently giants. Once matured they swim north to find the herds of females in the warmer waters of the tropics. Here they will compete with large rival males for the right to rule the herd.

Many other types of whale can be spotted in these waters at different times of year but the male sperm whales are the only resident species. Humpbacks, Southern Right, Minke, Killer and even Blue whales have all been spotted along this small stretch of coastline. In recent years some of these numbers have started to increase, a good sign that the international ban on whale hunting is possibly starting to have an impact on whale numbers, although if it takes them 60 years to mature it will take another century to really start to comeback. Lets try and keep those pesky Japanese under control. Early residents of Kaikoura in the 19th century used to complain about the noise the whales made off shore, keeping people awake at night – hopefully residents in the 21st century may get to make the same complaint.

Fur seals are a common sight around the Kaikoura peninsular

This one was very content to sun himself on the roadside wall

A pied shag

Tough life being a seal

Pretty flexible despite all the blubber

This one preferred the boardwalk as a siesta spot

Pacific reef heron hunting for a tasty morsel. We've seen these adapted birds right across south east Asia and all the way down to here

The remnants of one of Kaikoua's old whaling stations, only the fireplace remains

A Wandering Albatross - so excited to see these huge birds soaring around us with their huge wingspan in excess of 3 metres

We also saw a Royal Albatross

Despite their size (like an enormous goose) they effortlessly glide over the waves there wing tips millimetres from the water occasionally flicking the wave crest

A Mollymawk, a medium sized Albatross, with stunning markings on its beak

There are 22 species of Albatross worldwide, 13 of which can be found around Kaikoura

"There He Blows" the cry went up, our first sperm whale. They can be divided into three equal lengths: the head - from near the blowhole to the first hump, the body - from the hump to the small dorsal fin visible in the far right of this picture, and the tail section which is under the water here.

The sperm whales around Kaikoura tend to dive for around 45 minutes, once back at the surface they spend up to ten minutes literally getting their breath back, puffing out spouts of water from their blow hole, you can almost here them panting.

A good close up of this chaps lumpy head and panting blowhole

As they ready to dive the back begins to arch, the dorsal fin rises and then....

That beautiful tail fluke appears.... a final wave and disappears!

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