11 April 2012

Kaikoura

Lizzie and I wanted to go on a fun trip for Easter. We'd just moved apartments (the new one is dark and moldy), our jobs were stressing us out (teaching can be exhausting), and the weather had been terrible (dark clouds and rain all the time). We needed a fun trip.

Our first choice was Seacliff, once an insane asylum and now a hostel for the morbidly curious. However, the website, phone line, and apparently the hostel itself are all out of commission. When I called them, all I heard was the wrong number message and a very quiet voice wailing in the background. Probably everything is okay, though.

Instead, we made our way to Kaikoura. From Dunedin, at the bottom of the island, all the way to Kaikoura, which is near the top of the island, was quite a long trip. Of course, that's speaking in relative New Zealand terms. It's only a seven-hour drive, which by American roadtripping isn't all that bad, all the way up State Highway 1, which despite its vast name is almost completely a two-lane affair.

Need I even add that it's a gorgeous drive through the New Zealand countryside?  I feel like I should mention it when I talk about travel here, but it's almost silly - it's always a gorgeous drive, most places you go.  "Hey honey, I stopped and got some milk and the sight of the hills in the misty morning was astonishing."  "Rough day at work, but at least the view of the crashing sea on the rugged coast was beautiful."  "Pass the salt and oh my god look at the sunset."

Kaikoura, huddled on the coast at the thin end of SH1, is a whale town.  Not far offshore is the start of a deep ocean canal system, with the Hikurangi Trench plunging down a cold and dark ten thousand feet and giving a home to vast schools of arrow squid and the fierce lone giant squid.  Whales, born in the warmer waters up north, swim down to the trench when they are about fifteen and spend a decade or longer hunting and growing among the rich food sources here.  Their proximity brought men, shivering in wool and clutching long harpoons, whose local camp eventually turned into a full town.

Whales are the bones of Kaikoura to this day.  In some respects this is literal - the Garden of Memories that is the tribute to their WW1 dead is decorated with a half-dozen arches formed of whale jaws, and a local historic site is Fyffe House, a whaler's home built on foundations of vertebrae.  But it's also true for a rather more pleasant modern metaphorical way: if you want to see a whale, then there is no place in the whole world better than Kaikoura.  In an hour's voyage, you can be over their hunting grounds and tracking their calls.

Sperm whales, the primary whales in the area, are the world's largest predators and the largest toothed animal.  They hold their breath for more than an hour as they dive into the black, using echolocating clicks to find their prey.  They are huge and powerful and majestic.  Melville justly cried, "Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!"

We stayed at the Albatross Hostel, a pleasant enough little place mostly notable for the late nights kept by many of the staff and guests.  This wouldn't have been a problem if it hadn't been for the loud German conversations conducted outside of our window at two in the morning.

"Two girls spent an hour having the stupidest conversation last night. They were talking about what fruit their boobs look like."

Saturday morning, we hopped out of bed and right into the car.  For a not-inconsiderable investment, Lizzie was going up in a plane to see a whale with Wings Over Whales.  We went to the local airport, which was dedicated almost completely to this business.  A pleasant little pilot fellow, whose age I would put at about twelve, explained to my wife how it would work.  It was not a high-tech plan, to my surprise.  In essence, they would take off and fly around and look for a whale spouting.  Then they'd go look at it.

I had private doubts about this plan.  The ocean is large, and whales spend only ten or fifteen minutes on the surface each hour.  But we were here to see whales, and so I packed Lizzie into the tiny turboprop plane and watched it vanish into the sky with a fading drone.

Nearly an hour later, Lizzie and the middle-aged couple who had gone up with her all staggered back into the terminal.  Lizzie had a weak smile on her face.  They'd seen a whale, but it had taken a half hour of continuous circling over the ocean.  The digital display in the airport, that tracked their path, looked like a child's Etch-a-Sketch: a dense thicket of tight circles.  It must have been nauseating to be tilted to one side, strapped into a buzzing loud plane, spinning forever around in the sky.  But she saw a whale, huge and gray, even as she was turning green.

Saturday ended with veggie burgers and a walk at sunset on the beach.  Kaikoura's beach isn't sand, but rather progressively smaller round stones.  Smooth and heavy, they slide away underfoot.  Knots of thick bull kelp lie all along the water, attended by swarms of lean flies.  The water color is strange: close to shore, it's an unpleasant churned gray, but after twenty feet it abruptly breaks into the most astonishing bright turquoise.

The next day was the Big Day.  We were getting serious about these marine mammals: we were going on the Whale Watch, the big business that props up Kaikoura almost single-handedly.  Operating six custom-built jetboats and running between five and seven tours every day, this organization is a friendly local juggernaut.  Their booming business is well-deserved: from first to last they were professional and pleasant.

After barely ten minutes, the double-decker boat coasted to a stop just a bit offshore, sinking down into the water from its foils.  All around us were hundreds of Lagenorhynchus obscurus - dusky dolphins.  These dolphins are the "acrobats of the sea" - they raced around us, leaping over each other and doing tricks.  There were hundreds of them in the pod.  Most impressive were the aerial backflips: a dolphin would shoot forward in a powerful burst of speed under the water, looking like a blue-gray smear of color darting away, and then the dolphin would erupt out of the water, dropping its head and letting its tail swing high above it in a graceful arc before it plopped back into the waves.  This area off the coast was called the Racecourse for good reason.

But enough of that dolphin tomfoolery!  We left them to skip and dance in the water, while our ship's captain dipped a long microphone into the water to listen for whales.  The captain, a stout and short Maori with a barrel body on skinny legs, listened intently, then pronounced our heading with a chuckle.

"Have you noticed that the whale detector looks exactly like a metal detector? I have my suspicions."

When the boat came a stop, everyone lunged out of their seat to get outside, lining the railings to peer at the water.  It was bright and smooth, with big swells but no whitewater.  All we saw were seabirds, including the mollymawk albatross, which swept unmoving over the ocean like a white knife, steering with the barest shift of its wings.

Then I saw a spout of mist in the air, a hundred yards away, and a dark shape below.  I watched for a few seconds more, remembering the tour guide's admonishment against false sightings ("If it don't blow, we don't go.") but then it spouted again and we knew it was a whale.

It was "Tiaki," named with the Maori for "guardian" because of his long habitation in the trench off Kaikoura.  Tiaki, a big bull of a sperm whale, had been there for more than ten years.  Our guide laughingly called him "probably the world's most photographed whale."

Tiaki spouted, then rolled slightly as he went back under the water.  Sperm whales have blowholes that are right-of-center, so in order to breathe they have to shift slightly when they broach the surface.  Unfortunately, he was a little too far away to see well - more of a dark lump and water-spray than anything recognizable.  Only at the last moment did this change, as all the passengers pressed themselves against the railing and murmured in delight: he came for a final big breath, his body pumped full of oxygen for another trip down thousands of feet, and then he swept forward, his big tail pulling out of the water and flapping at us before vanishing in a powerful stroke.

It was amazing.

Melville:
Nor does this - its amazing strength - at all tend to cripple the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through a Titanism of power. On the contrary, those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic.
A spare twenty minutes passed, and the sea grew a little rougher as the swells became ever-higher.  I started to feel seasick.  Seasick, for the first time in my life!  It was, apparently, the queer motion of the swells lifting the boat from behind the stern - something about it didn't sit right with me.  Nor, it seemed, did it sit very well with anyone - many people had quietly excused themselves to be sick.  Lizzie was among them, her face pale and her joy over the whale becoming consumed with nausea.  Perhaps the previous day's plane-ride had aggregated.

She felt better, afterwards, and just in time.  Twice in twenty more minutes, we saw a second sperm whale: "Matimati," a whale made locally famous recently thanks to a photo of him bearing the scars of a battle with a giant squid.  His name is Maori for "fingers," describing two distinctive fleshy bits of his tail.

"Those are not the whales' names. They have their own names that they call each other. And they worship their own god.
  His name is Whalor."

We got to see Matimati much more closely.  You could see the long line of him, a swelling immensity that vanished beneath the water.  He was almost as big as the boat, with grey flesh that looked wrinkled and pebbled.  As he rose to breathe, the hump where his body became his tail rose from the water.  He snorted out water in a spray above him that turned into a rainbow mist in the bright sun.

The tour ended quietly, with a few minutes' pause to see the dolphins again.  We were soon back in Kaikoura, our stomachs still churning.  Lizzie was happy to be back on solid ground, and we lay on the beach in the sun for a long time.  The entire time we were on vacation, there was not a cloud in the sky.

The evening was mostly spent in recovery and contemplation of the trip to see the whales.  We took a long walk down to a point down the peninsula where seals come to lie in the sun and rest.  We'd seen lots of sea lions over the past year, since they frequently come to the beaches of Dunedin to bury themselves in sand and snort unpleasantly at their fellows, but this was my first chance to see the less intimidating and sleeker seal up close.  They didn't appear to be bothered by the dozens of people who came to gawk, not even when an entire busload of Japanese tourists arrived and crammed around the half-dozen seals flopped on the rocks.  They just lay there, scratched their heads with their back flippers, and occasionally peered around with their strange black eyes.  They moved their heads as if orientation didn't matter, looking upside-down with equal facility as rightside-up.

Dinner was a seafood feast at a famous grill that kept its prices low by operating out of a metal trailer.  It was the first time we'd had a mess of seafood (mussels, paua, fish, scallops, whitebait) in a long time, and it really hit the spot after a busy day of whalewatching and seasickness.

For all of these things, I think my favorite part of the weekend only arrived the next morning, as we were headed back home to Dunedin.  We'd chatted with the heavyset, jovial woman in charge of Fyffe House (the former whaler's cottage built on whalebone) and she'd told us about a little-known nook a bit further north, where we could see some other seals up close.  We got close directions, and Monday morning we went slightly out of our way to see this place: the Ohau Point Seal Colony.  I am very glad we did.


Ohau seems to operate like a creche.  It's a cold waterfall and stream with many shallow pools among the rocks, running down to the sea.  The mother seals bring their babies to the opening of the stream, and they scurry up over the rocks and to the pools, where they can play in safety away from the sharks and whales that might otherwise eat them.  After the mothers have hunted down some food, they come to collect them.

There were dozens of slick black seal pups.  They slid over each other in the big pool beneath the waterfall, flopping around and making small squealing barks.  Sometimes they climbed up as best they could onto the bank, moving with awkward squirms and flapping of flippers.  They'd play-fight, mouthing toothlessly their friends' heads and butting them with their heads before tumbling back into the water.  And they were very curious, coming up to us and staring with those strange eyes.  It was a place of almost unimaginable innocence, where babies played all day without fear or concern.  It was very beautiful to witness.

We came home to Dunedin without event.  It was cloudy and dark, and a light rain fell that night.  And we will go back to our jobs and our students and to cleaning our new flat, which is dank and scuffed with grime.  We will return to life and all its associated drudgeries as autumn descends and winter approaches.

But I will be thinking of whales and seals, and everything will be all right.

"I threw up!"

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