Catching sight of my bare legs, I suddenly feel vulnerable and try to pull down my skirt. I’m tired, cold, fed up and slightly nervous as I realise I’m in the passenger seat of a stranger’s messy pick-up truck. Perhaps hitchhiking wasn’t the best idea, but the thought of walking back to the hotel for over an hour in the dark didn’t appeal either. How did hubby and I end up in this situation? All we wanted was to see the famous Point Kean seal colony in Kaikoura, also called the whale watching capital of New Zealand.
Not sure if you could call three seals a colony though. Barely five minutes later we arrive back in town where the driver drops us off. I feel stupid for feeling suspicious. He only tried to help a couple of ill-prepared tourists.
In search of the Point Kean seal colony of Kaikoura
So, obviously the burning question on everyone’s mind right now is: how did we end up in this situation?!
Well, sit tight while I tell you!
Hubby and I had just arrived in Kaikoura, a small coastal town located 180 kilometres north of Christchurch. Kaikoura is most famous for its abundant wildlife. Want to ensure to see whales in New Zealand without too much effort? Then Kaikoura is the place for you! Besides different types of whales, it’s also home to dolphins, fur seals and various bird species such as the albatros and cormorant.
We arrived here by public transport in February 2018 as we didn’t have a rental car for this part of our trip yet. I had a booked us onto a whale watching tour for the next morning so when we arrived in the afternoon, I suggested to walk over to the Point Kean seal colony on Kaikoura Peninsula. At that point, the 5.5km-long walk along the winding coastline seemed like a marvellous adventure. Well, at least to me. Hubby was less convinced but tagged along anyway.
I expected to be greeted by glorious ocean views en route. But in reality it was a tiring walk along a boring motorway. There’s enough space to walk safely next to the main road, but it’s not very exciting. For the last kilometre there’s a dedicated wooden walkway which is more pleasant to walk on.
Yo, where the seals at?
Finally arriving at our destination, we walked into the small Point Kean seal colony car park and immediately spotted a lazy seal basking in the sun. Promising start I thought. It confirmed the articles I had read saying this particular seal colony was one of the best places to see fur seals in New Zealand.
As we walked further towards the water, we encountered an incredible lunar-like landscape. This surreal sight is actually the result of the devastating 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. While at other locations in and around Kaikoura the earth had literally split, the seabed was thrust to the surface along 20 kilometres of the coast.
Treading carefully along the uneven surface, our eyes scanned our surroundings. Being masters of camouflage, we didn’t want to accidentally stumble upon any sleeping seals. Especially since there were supposed to be many pups around this time of year which would make even the most docile mama fur seal into one crazy overprotective biatch.
Always remain cautious when approaching seals
Come too close and they might lash out with their sharp claws. They may look cuddly, but remember they’re still wild animals!
Ultimately, there was absolutely no reason for concern because in total we saw only three seals there. As the sun started to go down, the temperature dropped as dramatically as our spirits. Starting to get worried about walking back into town for over an hour in the dark along the unlit main road, I suggested to hitchhike.
This didn’t go as well planned though as not a single car stopped for us. Just as we were about to give up, the kind local resident let us hop into his pick-up truck. When we asked him where the imaginary seal colony was supposed to be, he laughed at us. ‘They’re right there, dozens, if not hundreds of them.’ Ugh, I thought. How is it possible that we missed them?!
That’s when Hubby and I vowed to each other that if we were ever to return to New Zealand, we’d get a rental car for the entire trip. Then we’d drive down to Kean Point again to seek out those pesky seals from wherever they were hiding!
And so we did the following year.
To see seals in Kaikoura, go to the Ohau Point seal colony
Fast-forward to February 2019 when we continue our ‘find the seals in Kaikoura’ saga. It’s our first morning in New Zealand and we’re getting ready to pick up our rental car from Hertz in downtown Christchurch. And just as we’re about to head out, we see a news item about the Kaikoura seals on TV. Hundreds of seals fill the screen, it’s amazing.
The chipper breakfast news presenter enthusiastically announces the return of the Kaikoura seal colony. He tells us how they had disappeared from Kean Point after the 2016 earthquake. Eventually they returned to the area, but settled down 27 kilometres north from Kaikoura. Their new home is Ohau Point, just off State Highway 1. According to the news presenter, there’s a brand-new car park just off the motorway. This allows the increasing number of spectators to view the seals safely.
Speaking of incredible timing! Only two days later we set off to Kaikoura. Of course our first stop is Kean Point. I’m glad we do have a car now because we see even less seals here than we had the year before!
How to get to Ohau Point seal colony
The drive from Kaikoura to Ohau Point is very straightforward. You simply follow SH1. But be aware that the Ohau Point Look Out isn’t clearly signposted. (At least not when we were last there.) Keep your eyes out for the a small car park on your righthand side right just as you go through a bend.
From the lookout you have a great view over the hundreds of seals on the rocks right underneath you. It took us two years to find the famous Kaikoura seal colony so obviously we spent some time here watching the cute pups play while the elderly were just enjoying the sunshine.
Where to go whale watching in Kaikoura, New Zealand
So all good in the end for meeting our new fur seal friends, but what about seeing any whales though? Remember I mentioned at the very beginning of this article I had booked us onto a whale watching tour the first time Hubby and I were in Kaikoura?
Let’s see how that adventure worked out, shall we?
It’s the day after our memorable hitchhiking incident. After an early start, we arrive at Whale Watch Kaikoura New Zealand on time for our 10am departure. We check in for our tour and are led to a small cinema room for some early morning infotainment about the marine life around Kaikoura. (Missing the popcorn and M&Ms though.)
After the compulsory safety announcements, we can board the special vessel. Feeling excited and eager to see as much as possible, we snatch the seats at the very front in the sheltered cabin. ‘If you’re prone to sea sickness, it’s best to sit at the back,’ warns the captain. I scuff, thinking that won’t be me, whilst ignoring the fact I suffer from car sickness.
Despite the bumpy ride, I thankfully don’t get sick. But judging from the number of pills my neighbour keeps popping, she’s less lucky.
Using the sophisticated equipment on board, the captain leads us to a spot where he detected whale activity. He mentions how they saw blue whales the other day and even an Orca just the week before. We come across several birds and even some seals (of course), and eventually … two sperm whales.
I’ve seen whales during my road trip through West Canada before, but once again the sight of these majestic animals makes me feel very humble. For a moment I almost forget to take photos. And as I pull out my camera, I just about manage to capture a mighty tail before the whale dives back down into the water.
Kaikoura dolphin encounter
But whales aren’t the only marine mammals we see in the waters around Kaikoura. At a certain point we are surrounded by dozens of dusky dolphins. They all seem to be enjoying showing off their meticulously choreographed routine to us. I can’t describe the joy I feel when I see these playful animals swimming along the boat and jumping in the air.
I was rather bummed out when we took the ferry from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island) a few days before. Apparently I had missed a small school of dolphins swimming in front of the boat whilst I was holed up at the back photographing the sunset.
However, Hubby assures me that this is a far more impressive sight. Not only can we see the dolphins from really close up, but there are so many of them. They’re literally all around us, it’s such an incredible sight!
Over two hours later we return to land and disembark with slightly unsteady legs but happy hearts. We have a few more hours to kill before we catch the bus and continue our explorations of New Zealand’s South Island. And there are many more adventures to tell you about, so stay tuned for more…
Don’t forget to scroll down for answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about whale watching in Kaikoura!