New Zealand- Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 360 (170)


Thursday 3rd March (2005)

The weather yesterday was near enough perfect for whale watching but all through the night, I kept hearing spatters of rain on the roof and I was worried that we might have missed the boat, so to speak, on our whale watching designs by having to wait until today to get out into the air and onto the water.

When we awoke, still groggy from the jetlag effect, the skies were overcast but the cloud cover was not too low and at least it wasn’t raining. The flies that I had driven out of the kitchen yesterday were back in force this morning and this put me off having breakfast of any kind. Whilst Sandy tucked into her morning meal, I called the helicopter tour company and was able to confirm that we were booked onto ten-thirty flight in the four-seater helicopter. Brilliant! This meant that I would be able to sit either in the front seat or the rear left seat with the huge bubble window. Either way, I would get a clear and unobstructed view of whatever we found in the water below.

We collected ourselves and drove over to the helipad. The first thing they did was to weigh everybody (fortunately, the nice woman chose not to reveal what the display read when I stepped onto the scales). We were then given a safety briefing and told a little about the whales themselves and why they are here at this particular point off the New Zealand coast. Apparently, it has to do with the deep waters just off shore here where the ocean currents force a lot of the sperm whale’s favourite foods into a narrow channel. They spend several decades of their lives in this spot before they are old enough to mate and move on. This is why sperm whale spotting is such a sure thing here, although they spend just several minutes on the surface to re-oxygenate before diving for the next hour or more to the hidden depths in search of food – squid and giant squid being their favourite. The two of us and one other couple took our seats in the helicopter and we were soon airborne. After just a short several minute flight out into the open ocean, our pilot started to circle around the area where the whales were expected to be. The weather out over the ocean was actually much better than onshore but after nearly ten minutes of fruitless circling, I was starting to get quite worried that we would not find anything. At the pilot’s instruction, we were all training our eyes on the waters below us to watch out for what he described would be a large log-like shape in the water with a burst of water being spouted into the air every several seconds. We circled for what seemed like an eternity and just as I was starting to give up hope, the pilot spotted a sperm whale and started to circle around it so that we could all see. Sure enough, a huge log-like object lay in the water beneath us and we could clearly see it spurting water into the air every ten to fifteen seconds or so. We both snapped happily away as the pilot signalled the location of the whale to one of the whale spotting boats below, which came rushing over without delay. The pilot circled mostly in a counter-clockwise direction, keeping the whale to my immediate left but made a change in direction every now and then to give the passenger on the right a good view too. All the changes in g-forces started to make me feel just a little queasy. Ultimately, we only spotted the one sperm whale throughout the entire thirty-minute flight but I got plenty of photos and a really nice shot of its tail sticking up in the air just before it dove into the depths again in search of more food.

We returned to base having thoroughly enjoyed the experience and completely thrilled to have actually seen a live, sperm whale, the third largest kind, in its natural habitat. Even though it was an expensive thirty-minutes at NZ$185 (€107,30) each, I still thought it to be money well spent for a once in a lifetime thrill. We made our way quickly back to the hostel to review all the photos we just took.

Every now and then when I offload the camera’s memory card, which is actually a miniature hard disk drive, onto the laptop, a single photo causes problems and has to be sacrificed. I think it might be a bad sector or something on the one of the memory card’s disk platters. Whatever the cause, this problem kicked in again today and I was sickened to discover after the fact that the one offending photo this time was the single shot I got of the whale’s tail sticking in the air. Bugger! We had been thinking of cancelling the boat tour we were booked on this afternoon because of the rough seas but having lost this one particular photo we’ll definitely have to go on the boat now. The shot of the whale’s tail in the air is the one photo that I have been hoping to capture ever since I learned of the possibility of going whale spotting. We chilled out a bit in our room before the clock indicated it was time to go over to the boat tour offices to report in for our attempt to spot whales this time from the surface of the water.

At NZ$125 (€72,50) each, the boat tour is slightly less expensive than the helicopter flight, but there is at least a near certainty that we will find whales up close. Even so, we’ve only been here in New Zealand for a couple of days and we are really starting to rack up the expenses. We’ve paid out a whopping NZ$620 (€360) on just whale spotting in one day alone. It also looks like New Zealand is going to be the most expensive place overall for accommodation. Australia would have taken that title if it weren’t for the fact that we were able to stay with family for half the time we were there. Add to that all the adrenaline rush activities that I’m looking forward to such as bungee jumping, jet boating and glacier walking and you end up with a very expensive country to visit overall. Hopefully, we can build in plenty of downtime where we can simply chill out and enjoy the view without having to spend a fortune on daily activities. That brings me to another point. It doesn’t seem to matter which town I look up in the guidebook, hiking remote trails seems to always be the prevalent activity of choice. With Sandy being pregnant and unwilling or unable to walk for very far, this eliminates a lot of what there is to do here for us. It will be interesting to see just how we deal with this as we move about the country.

So, where was I? Oh yes, we were at the boat cruise office. As we were saying goodbye to some more of my hard earned money, the man behind the desk told us that we were a little early but we could get onto the next departing boat as a result. When I mentioned that Sandy was pregnant, his face and tone of voice suddenly changed. Apparently, he had to first clear it with the captain of the vessel before we would be allowed to check in. We’ve really started to notice the difference now with Sandy being pregnant, as this sort of thing is now happening all the time. To be fair, though, I think he was mostly worried about the sea swells making for a rocky ride. He went to talk to the boat captain on the radio and came back with a disclaimer form that Sandy then had to sign. Typical! The captain had given the okay but in the time it took to get this clearance, the last two remaining seats on the boat we would have taken had been given to someone else so we had to make do with our original four o’clock departure after all. Knowing our luck, that earlier boat would, I’m sure, get to see three sperm whales whilst we only get to see one.

As the earlier departing crowd left the shop to board their bus to the dock, we went into the video presentation room to sit through a National Geographic programme on the life of the sperm whale. It was a fascinating presentation and I took the opportunity to swallow a couple of Cinnarizine seasickness tablets. It was expected to be a rough two and a half hours out on the boat after all. Being restricted by pregnancy as to what medication she can and cannot take, Sandy slapped on her anti-nausea bracelets instead. She’s had very good success with these so far.

The whale watching boat tour company has four boats with departures at least every hour or more. It was soon our turn to board the bus out to the dock, where one of the four identical vessels awaited us. The modern and well-appointed vessel is about eighteen metres in length and has an upper viewing deck. Our boat was less than half full and one of the staff members gave an interesting and comical running commentary all throughout. For its size, the vessel was extremely manoeuvrable and very fast. Within a minute or two, we’d already backed out of our docking bay, made our way through the dock enclosure and were off at very high speed into the open ocean. After escaping the confines of the calm coastal waters, the sea did indeed start to get quite choppy.

After about fifteen minutes or more of high speed cruising, we stopped in the vicinity of where the sperm whales were expected to be. One of the staff held an underwater microphone in the water and turned it to listen for the tell-tale clicks of the sperm whales. Every now and then, the captain would move the boat into a different location as the sonar operator honed in on the location of the whale. After about thirty-minutes of this, I was starting to get worried again but no sooner had I thought this, someone spotted a sperm whale off in the distance. The captain raced us over to within decent viewing distance, but still keeping a respectable gap between the boat and this magnificent leviathan. It must have been at least as long at our eighteen-metre boat. From the upper observation deck, I was able to get some great shots and, this time, I managed to snap several of its raised tail as it ducked back down into the depths. Seeing the sperm whale this closely was truly a thrill but the cherry on the top was the huge albatross that flew towards the boat and sat itself in the water right between the whale and us. This is apparently quite unusual.

The only boats that were out on the water this afternoon were the one that left shortly before us – the one we might have originally been on – and ours. We ended up only seeing the one sperm whale but this other boat apparently saw three. Didn’t I have a premonition about this?

Even though we only saw the one sperm whale from the boat, the captain did take us in closer to the shore, where we were treated to the sighting of a small pod of Dusky dolphins playfully swimming around the boat. Soon thereafter, the captain took us over to another seal and seabird colony. All in all, we got more than we bargained for on the boat tour and we returned to base with yet again the feeling that the whole experience was really worth the money.

The three Cinnarizine tablets that I took altogether did the trick and I made it all the way back to terra firma without a hint of nausea. Sandy, on the other hand, managed to half fill a sick bag shortly before disembarking. Only one thing for it then – a nice, juicy steak dinner. We were directed to a couple of recommended restaurants by the staff when we arrived back at the departure point and we found the second of these to be within acceptable budgetary limits. A huge T-bone with egg and chips was just what the doctor ordered – for me at least.

In reviewing all the photos we’ve taken throughout this very expensive single day, I’m thoroughly pleased with the memories that will now stick with us for the rest of our days. Tomorrow holds the promise of some relaxation in the natural hot springs of Hanmer, a couple of hours south and inland from here. Surely we can’t spend too much money just sitting in a hot spring?