Nowhere has exciting wildlife been more easily accessible to me than on the South Island of New Zealand. One of the outstanding spots for encountering animals in the wild here is Kaikoura, a small peninsula of rugged cliffs some hours drive north of Christchurch. Here sperm whales, dusky dolphins, seals, albatross and cormorants are all present in abundance.
The reason for this is the extraordinary underwater topography of the area. An enormous sub sea canyon, deep as the Grand Canyon, cuts in from what is called the Hikurangi Trench and almost touches the shorelines just south of the peninsula. This brings in close to land plankton and other representatives of the lowest steps of the marine food chain, making it a favoured spot for sea mammals and all coastal wildlife all year round. Humans are also brought in here in increasing numbers: to go whale watching and to swim with the seals and dolphins.
It was the 'snorkelling-with-dolphins-deal' that brought me here, and this was an absolute top-notch adventure, I can assure you. Being surrounded by wild dolphins within touching reach for more than half an hourů well, I don't think I can get the overwhelming thrill of this across in words. Instead I'll tell you about my short hikes to the point of the peninsula.
From the last houses of the village it's a twenty-minute walk along a beach, or along the road behind it if you prefer, before you reach the rocks and cliffs of the ocean side of the point. At low tide this bay reveals a tidal mudstone platform - some parts are shiny, white limestone - which is well worthwhile crossing. Wonderful patterns and furrows give the place a moon-like character. Some waders are hunting for food in puddles and cracks, and a heron is surveying the area from the elevated position of a big rock in the middle of the flats.
I walked around some bigger rocks, and there I jumped ten feet in the air when the loud, deep and wet growl of a seal surprised me. Resting behind the rock he was just as surprised by me, of course, when I nearly stepped on its tail. I backed off respectfully, and noticed that this wasn't the only one around.
I was close to where the road ended, with a parking area occupied by four-five cars, and some fellow tourists were walking around the rocky grounds admiring and taking pictures of the seals. These seals, the New Zealand fur seals, do not gather in big colonies as one can see other places, but spread out over a big area.
Kaikoura would have been special and magic even without the seals. The rock formations, especially when you close in on them a bit, make up a mysterious wonderland that could have been picked straight from a fantasy story. Sharp, tooth-
edged, pointed, folded and twisted, the rocks reach up and out into the sea creating small bays, islands and sounds. The large, golden brown bull kelp adds a touch of colour to the barren scenery.
As always, walking five-ten minutes from the car park was enough to leave most other visitors behind, and civilisation suddenly seemed miles and ages away when I continued walking and half climbing the rugged rocks. The seals were obviously used to people, but signalled very clearly when they felt I was too close. These seals are not among the biggest and as their name reveals they have fur, which is instead of extra fat. They also have visible ears that give them a characteristic look. I watched one swim around, just playing I think, in a small inlet. Up and down, over and around, in and out. The contrast of the seal's streamlined agility and speed in water, to its slow clumsiness on land is truly fascinating.
I sat down for a while, with dozing seals surrounding me, and as I took in the greatness and joy of the situation, I also wondered for how long this could last. Will there one day be restricted access to places like this. Sooner or later I guess that will happen. In a world of dwindling natural wildlife sanctuaries it will be without respect to wear them down. Did I play my part here with the right amount of respect? I'm not sure, to be honest. Maybe I got a bit too close a few times.
Just where I decided to turn around - it was late in the afternoon - in the middle of the most barren cliffs and rocky flats, some sheep came walking by just in front of me! This definitely seemed like a fantasy scene. The high ridge behind the shoreline was lush and green, and great grounds for these grazers, but what on earth did they do down here in these forsaken badlands? Adjusting and preparing for climate change, perhaps? Or maybe they too enjoyed the company of the seals.