Upper South Island and the West Coast Places

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Kaikoura

Swimming with Dolphins and Seals

The dolphin- and seal-spotting opportunities are fantastic. Although operators have led visitors to view and swim with dolphins and seals off the Kaikoura Coast for years, and the animals may be familiar with boats, they are not tame. New Zealand fur seals are common, and you might spot an octopus or crayfish. Pods of dusky dolphins stay in the area year-round; you may even see them doing aerial jumps and flips.

The offerings vary and operators will explain their expectations before you book. Some boat operators go farther offshore, whereas others hug the coast. If you have any questions about the suitability of a trip, pipe up; these guys are happy to help. Guides can prime you with information on the local species and will be in the water with you. Wet suits and other gear are provided.

Dolphin Encounter. Dolphin Encounter arranges both watching and swimming with the Dusky dolphins that live around here. Tours operate three times a day through summer (5:30am, 8:30am and 12:30pm) and twice a day in winter (forget that 5:30am start!). Because they operate in the open ocean, you need to be confident in the water, and it's an advantage to have some snorkeling experience. Trips can cancel due to bad weather so prepare to be a little flexible. Book online or visit the Encounter Kaikoura headquarters, cafe and gallery, where you can also organise a pelagic bird watching cruise. 96 The Esplanade, Kaikoura, 7300. 03/319–6777 or 0800/733–365. www.dolphinencounter.co.nz. NZ$90 per person to watch the dolphins from the boat. $NZ170 per person to swim.

Point Kean Sea Colony. You don't have to join an organized tour to get close to seals. At the Point Kean sea colony out on the Kaikoura Peninsula you can see seals in their natural habitat, lying in the sun or playing in the kelp-filled shallows. These are wild animals so don't approach closer than 10 meters (30 feet). With seabirds wheeling above and waves breaking along the shore it's a powerful place just minutes from the main street. Follow Fyffe Quay to the colony at the end of the road. Pt. Kean, Kaikoura, 7300.

Seal Swim Kaikoura. Seal Swim Kaikoura is New Zealand's original seal-swimming experience and has several boat- and shore-based tours running daily from October to May. The swims are in shallow waters, sheltered by the Kaikoura Peninsula, and you're virtually guaranteed to see New Zealand Fur Seals up close and personal. Book online or phone in. 58 West End, Kaikoura, 7300. 03/319–6182; 0800/732–579 (NZ only). www.sealswimkaikoura.co.nz. from NZ$80 per person.

Whale Watch Kaikoura. Sperm whales browse closer to shore at Kaikoura than anywhere else in the world. Humpbacks, pilot whales, and orca pass by on annual migrations. See these marine giants as they dive and breech with comparitive ease on specialist whale-watching cruises operated by Kaikoura's own tribal company. Whale Watch is owned by Ngai Tahu, the predominant South Island iwi (tribe). Having cruised these waters since 1987, Whale Watch skippers can recognize individual whales and adjust operations, such as the boat's proximity to the whale, accordingly. Allow 3½ hours for the whole experience, 2¼ hours on the water (you need to check in at the Whaleway Station at the end of Whaleway Road and you will be transported to your boat). Various dolphins and seals and other species of whales may also be seen on any day.

Be sure to book in advance: 7 to 10 days during the peak season, November–April, three to four days at other times. The whale-watching boats are sturdy catamarans and fully enclosed for sea travel, but once the whales are spotted you can go out on the deck for a closer view. Trips depend on the weather, and should your tour miss seeing a whale, which is rare, you will get an 80% refund. No children under three. Take motion-sickness pills if you suspect you'll need them: even in calm weather the sea around Kaikoura often has a sizable swell. Trips are subject to cancellation if the weather is bad. Whaleway Station Rd., Kaikoura, 7300. 03/319–6767 or 0800/655–121. www.whalewatch.co.nz. NZ$145.

Wings over Whales. To get above the action, take a half-hour whale-viewing flight. From a small, fixed-wing aircraft you get a bird's-eye view of the giant sperm whales, and others that pass by. The planes will drop to 150 meters to view the whales while the pilots give an informative commentary. A stunningly scenic flight over the famous Kaikoura coastline is a bonus, and of course you won't get seasick. Wings over Whales claims a 95% success rate in spotting whales, and the planes can often fly when it's too rough for the boats to go out. Shuttle transport is available from the township to the airfield (NZ$10). Kaikoura Airfield, State Hwy. 1, Kaikoura, 7374. 03/319–6580 or 0800/226–629. www.whales.co.nz. NZ$165.

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