Gray Skies and Whale Tales

August 28, 2013

Sometimes I have an idea for a blog post that I think about for so long, that when it comes to writing it I am at a loss. Its like, all the thoughts I was going to have on the topic got thought, and my brain is done with them. This is unfortunate because you, my lovely readers, obviously miss out on something I once thought was fantastic, but didn’t have the followthrough to get online before my ADD brain could type it… what? One such case is the story of the awesome boat trip we went on in Kaikoura with Scott’s parents. Regardless, it’s an experience worth writing about. So here goes…

The weather wasn’t cooperating when we drove up to Kaikoura. Then again, it was the middle of August (Northern Hemisphere Equivalent: February) so why would it? When we got into town we were greeted by a cold southerly wind and gray skies. The rain was holding off though, so we checked in to our whale watching tour, which we had signed up for the night before.

Although the front desk staff were unfriendly and the safety video a bit excruciating, the tour was amazing. The guys who ran the boat tour were enthusiastic and knowledgable. For a whale-idiot like myself, I learned a lot before we even spotted one, making the whole experience that much more fantastic. Anyways, what you all care about: pictures.

No wait. First of all, a brief and incomplete lesson for those of you unfamiliar with the Sperm Whale (mom). Male sperm whales are far larger than females, and average 50ft in length, and weigh 45 tons. Newborns are a mere 1 ton. Sperm whales have teeth instead of baleen. They are the largest of the toothed whales. That being said, these teeth are for fighting, not chewing. For digestion, they have two stomachs: the first uses muscles to crush food, and the second has gastric juices which break it down. They are found in the open ocean, and are the deepest diving mammal. They can dive up to 10,000 feet, and feed on all kinds of marine life, especially giant squid (aka: the source of all my nightmares since I saw that one at Te Papa. Gross). They have the largest brain of any animal on earth- 5x the size of a human brain! source 

The sperm whale is known for the distinctive shape of it’s big blocky head and very small lower jaw. (They make very cute cartoons.) The head makes up approximately one third of the body. Besides a massive brain, the whale’s head is filled with a waxy-liquidy oil which was originally mistaken for sperm. Hence, the name (poor guys). The oil reserve is thought to help with buoyancy and diving, as well as communication- although it is not completely understood. Sperm whales have been widely hunted because of this oil.

Billy Blockhead

When sperm whales come up for air, they stay on the surface of the water for about 15 minutes. They can dive for up to a couple of hours! But if one doesn’t know what they’re looking at, they may mistake this great mammal for a bit if driftwood. Only about 1/10th of the whale is visible from the surface.

Sperm whale from below, you can see what part is above waterer. –Thanks Google image search

To identify the whales (and not the driftwood), we were instructed to keep an eye out for their blows. The blowhole on the sperm whale is located on the left side of their head and is shaped like an “S”, giving them an odd, angled and “bushy” spray-like blow. This is also helpful in distinguishing a sperm whale from it’s cousins if you’re lucky to be out searching amongst different species. Anyhow, our search went really well, and we got to see 2 males side-by-side right off the bat.

So yeah, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, this may not be super interesting. If the water was clear and tropical it would be neat to get some sort of underwater camera involved (like Ms. Basquez did in the photo above). But regardless, to know what is under the water is what it’s all about. That, and the whale tail. These were the first whale tails I’ve ever seen in my life, and they were so close. It was spectacular. (Photos courtesy of my father-in-law.)

Our trusty captain found us 6 whales, which apparently is quite a good show. We had mercifully calm water, which helped with both binocular use and decent photography. Before taking us back to shore, he motored us over to the local dolphin hangout. We cruised into a pod of an estimated 600 dolphins, although I’d guess there were even more. At one point there were dolphins jumping and flipping as far out on the horizon as I could see. The dolphins around here are Dusky Dolphins, known for their arial acrobatics and playful nature (aren’t all dolphins?). They can be found in many places in the southern waters of the southern hemisphere, but are particularly prolific in the waters around New Zealand. They are great for the tourist economy around here.

All the dolphin photo credits are (obviously): Me.

Besides doing front flips and aerials, these guys liked to “surf” the wake at the front of the boat. This was fun to watch because they were no more than 8 feet away.

While the sole mission of the sperm whale seems to be dive deep and eat giant squid (rendering them my oceanic heroes), the sole purpose of the dusky dolphin is clearly: have as much fun as possible at all times. 

So my first voyage out into the South Pacific was amazing, gray skies and all. I’d recommend Whale Watch Kaikoura to any one interested in whale watching and unenthusiastic desk help. There’s much cheaper dolphin encounters out there, but the whale experience is phenomenal. I’m so glad we did it. A big thank you to my in-laws for making it happen for us. What a great adventure!

Yours truly searching for albatross.
Scott and Billy Blockhead

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  • Reply deborah gregory September 2, 2013 at 12:55 am

    What a life you and Scott are living! Thank you so much for sharing it with us.You are truly an entertaining book to read. You will have amazing stories to tell your grandkids (or greatnieces and greatnephews)

    • Reply Kristen Fellers September 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm

      Deb, thank you so much! You must be one of my most faithful readers 🙂

    Come on, you must want to tell me something!