All Along the Briny Deep

We’ve made the crossing from the North Island to the South, relinquishing our rental car in Wellington on a cloudy morning …

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… and making our way across Cook Strait on the Interislander Ferry. This is a famously beautiful trip, so it’s too bad that we didn’t have better weather for it. Still, we did have some nice views once we entered Queen Charlotte Sound…

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… and we had fun out on deck:

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If you ever take the Interislander Ferry, here are a few tips: (1) get on board incredibly early and snatch up one of the reclining chairs in the very front of the ship, or (2) get on twenty minutes before departure and buy tickets for the private lounge (or book a private cabin — it’s a better bargain than the lounge if you’re traveling with two people, though you need to prefer a bed to chairs). Also, the cafes on board are excellent — they have espresso machines, for goodness sake — so you don’t need to bring your own food. And if the weather is truly terrible, you can choose from several forms of entertainment: two different movies and a kids’ magic show.

We arrived in the not-so-charming town of Picton without incident.

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Our South Island trip began with a drive down the eastern coast, which famously offers great shoreline and wildlife sightings. A short detour to see Lake Grassmere, where they produce 70,000 tons of salt every year, was well worth it …

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… though this sign was a bit concerning:

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Salt gets piled up like this once it’s taken out of the lake:

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The drive down the coast is striking:

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The only problem with driving down the east coast from Picton to Kaikora right now is that a huge earthquake hit the town of Kaikoura in 2016, damaging large swathes of the down and pulling significant sections of the two-lane highway into the sea. They are still doing road repairs, which makes travel slow and cuts off all possible pull-overs (and a lot of great views). It’s too bad, because as you drive along, you can see that many of the rocks are littered with seals! But they mostly look like small black dots from this distance:

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We camped at the Kaikoura Paketa Beach Holiday Park, which was huge and crowded with families. People in New Zealand don’t camp the way they do in the US. At home in the States, you usually get a site with a lot of space around it, mostly likely with your own grill or fire pit and your own picnic table. Here, campsites are immediately next to each other — no space, no grill, no picnic table — just your tent smack up against someone else’s. So camping can feel cramped and loud, especially if you have a tiny tent and most other people have camper vans and tents built for ten. And that problem is exacerbated at popular beach parks like this one. But it had a nearly-empty beach (another one with more black stones instead of sand) …

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… and we had a meager dinner (crackers, cheese, and an avocado) by the water …

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… played a round of mini-golf (holiday parks usually have one or more things for kids to do) on the hardest course we’ve ever seen …

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… and took over someone’s fire on the beach to end the night. Fires are technically not legal here — it’s too dry — but that didn’t seem to be stopping anyone.

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It was lovely to sit in front of the fire. First of all, for me, fires feel integral to the camping experience. But on a more prosaic level, it was just nice to have something warm. New Zealand has been deceptively chilly — it’s summer here, and I packed sundresses, but I’ve only had one day on which I could wear one. Temperatures have tended to be in the 60s and low 70s during the day and have been dipping down to the 50s at night. I know that’s not cold by US East Coast standards at this time of year, but it’s not what you expect on the beach in summertime.

We drove into town the next morning to go whale watching.

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I’ve always been interested in whales (just ask my parents — I did an intensive, yearlong great whale project in sixth grade). Because of the unusual geography of its continental shelf, Kaikoura offers great opportunities to see male sperm whales (the only one of the great whales with teeth, hunted primarily for something called ambergris, a perfume fixative used in the years before synthetics (see, that whale project stuck with me)).

Whale watching involves a lot of looking out from the deck and seeing this…

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… or going out to the back to look at the ship’s wake…

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… because whales can be frustratingly hard to find. They’re very large, but the ocean is an enormous place (which becomes all the more apparent when your’e out in the middle of it). We spent a good deal of time admiring the flight of the occasional albatross. Then finally, we saw this:

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Unless you’re Herman Melville, it’s impossible to describe the excitement of seeing a sperm whale. And iPhone photos cannot do them justice (though that didn’t keep me from taking tens of ultimately unsatisfying pictures).

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This whale has the terrific non-name of MTL230. He’s been coming to the Kaikoura area for long enough to be recognizable — but not, apparently, to have been granted a moniker like so many of the other whales they’ve identified. MTL230 is one of the largest sperm whales they see in this region. We watched him for about ten minutes…

… and then he went down for his next long dive:IMG_6705IMG_6709

This was a day filled with wildlife. In the bird family, in addition to seeing albatrosses and oystercatchers, we found red-billed gulls …

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… and pied shags (bicolored cormorants) …

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… and a black-backed gull chick:

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We also saw seals — lots and lots of seals! There are New Zealand fur seal colonies all around Kaikoura, and there is one just south of town that you can walk out to (over some sharp rocks and through a rising sea channel) for viewing. The seals are right in front of you.

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And there are seal babies! There’s an entire seal nursery; this is the one area that is roped off to make sure that curious visitors don’t come too close. But you can get near enough to have a good look at the cubs…

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… and to watch them interacting with their elders…

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… and to hear them:

There were so many cubs that we lost count.

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And the whole herd was so much fun to watch.

We sat on the rocks for quite a while …IMG_6841.jpg

… and then walked back to our car (soaking our jeans in the rising seawater in the process) and drove into town for fish & chips and ice cream.

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