The town that whales built
The blast of the harpoon may have given way to the click of the camera, but whales are still the cornerstone of commerce—and the subject of many a decorative mural—in the north Canterbury town of Kaikoura. In little more than a decade, marine ecotourism has transformed a coastal backwater into an international travel hotspot.
Shark! Shark! A big mako!” There is a sudden scramble aboard Vic Foster’s boat Takapu as, out of blue water, the unmistakeable shape appears: a steel-grey, cone-nosed torpedo. Its mouth gapes, flashing rows of ripsaw teeth, then snaps shut like a gin trap round the body of a dead barracuda serving as bait.
On deck, a dozen wet-suited tourists jostle to get a look, but the grandstand view is 2 m underwater, from a metal cage lowered at Takapu’s stern. The cage is like a giant crayfish pot, and I’m standing on its bottom, bracing against the sloshing surge of the ocean, breathing hard through the mouthpiece of my air supply. This is a little re-enactment of the scene from Jaws: a man in a cage and the beast at large. For a moment, like most of my adventure-hungry companions on board, I’m secretly hoping the shark will do something scary: ram the cage perhaps, or try to rip it open.
But where the celluloid fantasy meets the real world there is both disappointment and elation. There will be no cage-rattling action, no angry snout prising the steel bars apart. In fact, when wrestling with the rope that holds the bait, the mako accidentally bumps the cage, and this contact gives it such an electrifying fright it flees. The encounter is brief, yet it burns in my mind a lasting image—eye contact with a wild and wary creature in its own domain. During my stay in Kaikoura I will hunt more such trophy moments. An ecopilgrim seeking memory snap‑shots, I have come to a place of plenty.
With the shark gone, I climb out of the cage and rejoin the others. It is a perfect afternoon. Inshore, the ocean explodes against the craggy shoreline, obscuring the winding road and railway with a curtain of sea haze. Rising above the rocky headlands stands a barricade of mountains, which, even now, in midsummer, hold pockets of snow. Out towards the horizon, three large catamarans encircle a fountain of white spray—a sperm whale filling its lungs before another dive.
Further out still, almost in the open ocean, great albatrosses glide low above the water, disappearing into troughs in the mountainous swell, banking against the crests while scarcely moving their wings.
This is the Kaikoura coast: a SeaWorld without walls, one of the most celebrated ecotourism hotspots on earth. Yet little more than a decade ago, Kaikoura was the essence of small-town New Zealand, a hamlet tucked into a nook of its namesake peninsula, a place synonymous only with the meaning of its Maori name: “a meal of crayfish.” Today it is a maritime Serengeti, a feast for all senses.
The ecological richness of Kaikoura has to do with its peculiar underwater topography. Just offshore, the continental shelf drops rapidly into a series of deep gullies: the Kowhai Canyons east of the peninsula, the Conway Trough to the south. Between these lies the Kaikoura Canyon, a 60 km-long U-shaped trench that begins within 500 m of the gravel beach near Goose Bay and quickly drops to a 1200 m-deep abyss. This is a Fiordland kind of landscape, only underwater, and over it two oceanic rivers meet: a warm current from the East Cape and a colder one from Southland. The resultant mixing of the waters is associated with an upwelling of deep-ocean nutrients that supports a cornucopia of marine life, ranging from plankton and krill to dolphins and whales.
Although Kaikoura has always been a coast of plenty the early Maori settlers guarded it ferociously, as Captain Cook observed in February 1770—the details of the underwater gullies and their ecological significance have been revealed only in the past 20 years. Now the Kaikoura Canyon, or, more precisely, the life it supports, has become as grand an attraction as its Arizona counterpart. The rise to international stardom has happened so quickly the one-time sleepy fishing town still seems a little stunned by its own success.
“All our trips are fully booked for the next two weeks, whether we actually go out or not,” Vic Foster tells me with a mixture of pride and anxiety. His own story parallels that of Kaikoura. The son of a crayfisherman, he went to sea at 14, hauling cray pots along Kaikoura’s wave-pounded shores. The crayfish were never a gold rush, he says, just tough, honest work, and because there were no quota restrictions they became progressively smaller and harder to catch. “And so you needed a bigger boat and better gear, and it all cost you more, so you had to catch more crays,” he says. “It was like a treadmill speeding up under your feet.”
Fishing practices, too, were primitive by today’s standards. Although there was a legal size limit below which all crayfish had to be returned to the sea, in reality this did little to protect the population. “We used to pull out all our pots and empty them on to the deck, and then sort the crays on the way home,” Foster says. “Well, if you throw all your undersize crays back while you’re steaming over a mile-deep canyon they’re as good as dead.”
Foster was one of the first to incorporate escape gaps in his pots, which allow undersized crayfish to get out unharmed. This simple expedient, together with the introduction of a quota system, has resulted in a dramatic improvement in the fishery in recent years. But by 1998 Foster had had enough of pulling pots. Catching the ecotourism wave that was sweeping Kaikoura, he converted Takapu into a diving vessel and began taking passengers out to see the sharks: blues, mako, an occasional great white.
As with all such ventures, there are no guarantees that customers will see the animals because, as Foster points out, he’s working with wild creatures, not circus pets. Yet this accessible wildness—the zipping out to meet a shark between a morning espresso and an alfresco crayfish lunch—is one of Kaikoura’s greatest draw cards. And so the bookings pour in like an incoming tide.
Which, as good as it is for the cash flow, causes Foster some existential disquiet. The times when he took out half a dozen people a day, to show them the sharks and a bit of the coastline along the way, are long gone. Today his boats depart with the regularity of passenger trains. And so he ponders the questions that Kaikoura, and much of New Zealand, is facing: How big is big enough? How do you tease the silver coins out of the Mammon of tourism and not lose your soul in the process? How do you find the balance between making a living from nature and protecting it at the same time?
Such concerns are partly the legacy of harsh lessons of the past. Kaikoura’s first Pakeha settlers—like many of today’s million or so annual visitors—were attracted by the whales, which are found here uncommonly close inshore. Robert Fyfe (also spelled “Fyffe”), an apprentice wheelwright from Scotland, was one of the first arrivals. In 1842, he set up Kaikoura’s first whaling station at Waiopuka, a sheltered bay on the peninsula. It would become the largest and most successful of 30 or so whaling ventures along the coast. The bay has an extensive flat rocky foreshore, which the whalers used as a natural butchering table. They’d float a carcass on to it at high tide, wait for the water to ebb, then strip it of its blubber with scalpels the size of oars.
Sperm whales, southern right whales, humpbacks—they all came to feed at Kaikoura, and they could all be spotted from the elevated peninsula. At a signal from the lookout, the ever-ready whalers ran to their boats and rowed out in pursuit. Though today we are appalled at the very notion of whaling, it is impossible not to admire the courage of these men and the hardships they endured. A harpooned whale could reduce a boat to splinters with one blow of its tail. Often it would tow a boat 10 or 12 km into the open ocean, which even on calm days is wrinkled with a 2 m swell. It must have been a white-knuckle ride, with the harpooner at the bow, axe in hand, ready to cut the towrope should the whale dive. Then there would be the long and backbreaking row back to shore, towing an island of blubber towards a camp whose stench of smoking try pots could be smelt from miles away.
All too soon the whales became scarce. In April 1854, Fyfe and his crewman, Tani, died when their vessel, Fidele, laden with whale oil, overturned near Cape Campbell, and in 1866, the Marlborough Express reported that “whales seemed to have abandoned coming to Kaikoura.” Though the bonanza was over, the hunt continued. In 1908, motorised boats and harpoon guns were introduced, and as late as 1963–64, the Perano family from Tory Channel killed some 248 sperm whales in Kaikoura waters.
By then, however, the whalers, like their quarry, were a dying breed, and change was afoot, a shift in perception. No longer would the leviathans surface to the deadly blast of guns and harpoons but to a cannonade of camera shutters. Protected by law, they grew in number and became Kaikoura’s golden geese, ushering in a new era of prosperity for the town.
Ngati kuri, a hapu of Ngai Tahu and the traditional residents of the Kaikoura coast, have a creation tale that explains how they came to inhabit their land. The story has several variations but, in essence, tells of an ancestor named Paikea, who fell into a bit of a raruraru—a quarrel—with his brothers in Hawaiiki. They chased him across the sea, but at a timely moment a humpback whale appeared and carried him to the safety of Aotearoa’s shores. Today, the descendants of Paikea like to add that this wasn’t the only time a whale came to their rescue.
In the early 1980s, Kaikoura, population 2060, was in the economic doldrums. “There was absolutely nothing going for the kids,” Teri Sonal, a mother of three, tells me. “When they left school, they had to leave or go on the dole. This was a no-hope town.”
Then things got even worse. The government’s downsizing of the Ministry of Works and the railways department sent a ripple of redundancies throughout the country, with the Kaikoura depots being hit hard. One of those who took redundancy was Bill Solomon, a local Maori leader and a bear of a man, with mana to match his physique. He suggested a way to provide jobs for his people: buy a boat and take tourists out to see the whales.
There was only one problem with Solomon’s proposal: a severe lack of capital. A fundraising campaign netted $35,000, but a 12-seater inflatable boat cost three times as much. In order to borrow the extra money, four families put up their homes as collateral.
And so, in 1989, a brand-new Naiad inflatable arrived in Kaikoura, to be guarded by many eyes and a tethered rottweiler. After school, children would sit in the boat and “drive” it, imitating the roar of the outboard and the sound of the hull crashing through the swell. Among the kids were Thomas Kahu and Marcus Solomon, who today manage Whale Watch Kaikoura, which has grown to be the largest employer in the town.
In the boardroom of the “Whaleway Station”—as Whale Watch dubbed the old railway building, which it bought, redecorated and turned into its headquarters—I sit with Kahu, Solomon and Sonal round an exquisite macrocarpa table, itself the size of a baby whale. Kahu orders a round of cappuccinos—yes, he says matter-of-factly, they now also own a share in a coffee company.
I ask them about the early days of the venture. There was animosity in the community back then, they say—racial tension caused by the fact that a group of Maori had bought out their only competitor, and then, in a masterstroke of diplomacy, secured a monopoly over all water-based whale-watching. A bus was burned, outboards were sabotaged.
Despite the bad blood, the success of Whale Watch was nothing short of phenomenal, its growth as dramatic as a whale’s spout. By 1996, Kaikoura and its whales were attracting some 200,000 visitors a year, and the town blossomed with restaurants, lodgings and other tourism services. Old antipathies were put to rest; prosperity brought amity.
In the booking centre adjacent to where we are talking, the atmosphere is that of an airport where several flights have just been cancelled. People sit on backpacks, waiting, hoping that—miraculously—a space on one of the boats will become available. “We’re running at our maximum capacity, carrying around 65,000 people a year,” says Kahu. “Twice as many visitors book a trip, but in the course of a year we lose 2–3 months of sailing due to rough seas.” Get a few weather days in a row, he says, and you have waiting lists as long as Russian bread queues.
With a seemingly endless flow of customers and a permit monopoly, the only real problem for Kahu and his team is the caprice of the ocean god, Tangaroa. That and seasickness among the passengers. Kahu rolls his eyes. “Man, we’ve tried everything,” he says. “Wrist bands, pills, patches, acupressure, mind-over-matter stuff.” None of them has a 100-per-cent efficacy. As a result, much of Kaikoura’s superb seafood is recycled unceremoniously back into the ocean.
In Kahu’s easy and confident manner and in the goodhearted giggle of Solomon, who has inherited his late father’s stature, I sense a hint of disbelief at just how successful their tribal venture has become, along with an enormous pride that it was their families who actually made it happen. “I remember the first time we got our uniforms,” Solomon says. “Man, we walked tall! We were wearing colours. Our colours!”
I learned to scuba dive at Kaikoura. This, I calculate, must have been before Kahu and Solomon began skippering their whale boats, when they were still teenagers. In the labyrinth of Kaikoura’s rocky reefs I found my first crayfish and octopus, and looked into the eyes of a fur seal. Here I delighted in needling my way through an underwater kelp forest, its soft trees swaying with the surge, and felt a twinge of vertigo when, out off Goose Bay, the sea floor suddenly dropped away, leaving me staring into an abyss.
For a time, I lived in a tent in a campground across the railway track from what is now the Whaleway Station but then was an abandoned building with glassless windows, echoing to the crunch of beer bottles and stinking of urine.
At the campground I met a young Maori who lived in a small caravan. With his impressive tattoos and constant look of dejected aggro, he could have been a Once Were Warriors character. There was the dark cloud of a gang past a cloud he had come to Kaikoura hoping to lose.
In the evenings, when I returned from diving and he from his job on a crayfishing boat, we sat on an old picnic table, drank cheap bourbon and played our guitars. I kept rhythm; he crackled with Jimi Hendrix flair. “Inside, bro, I had a lot of time to practise,” he told me.
One day I saw a distressed young woman gathering up his belongings from the caravan: guitar, Hendrix tapes, a pair of cowboy boots. It was his sister. “The cops came and took him away,” she sobbed. The dark cloud had caught up with him. I never saw him again, though I suspect his guitar improved even more.
Today, I can imagine him wearing Marcus Solomon’s colours, mingling with the tourists, lapping up their worldliness yet standing tall, proud of his own heritage. But for him the changes in Kaikoura came too late. Back then he was just a no-hoper in a no-hope town; there were no rescuing whales on his horizon.
So when I leave my hosts at the Whaleway Station, it is not their business talk, their hyperbolic growth figures and future strategies, or their global ecotourism awards that leave me with the most lasting impression. It is the quiet, homely pride of Sonal. The kids, she tells me, can now stay at home with their families and prosper. They don’t have to leave town. They can have a promising future and keep out of trouble. Kaikoura is once again a place of plenty.
This plenitude is nowhere more striking than south of the peninsula, where the deep waters of the Kaikoura Canyon meet the coast. It is still dark when I’m aboard one of three boats fanned out in a wide search pattern, travelling towards Goose Bay. At this hour the sky is a smudge of magenta and blue and the ocean as black as ink. But even in the pre-dawn twilight it is hard to miss the animals we’re looking for. And suddenly we find them. Dusky dolphins. Hundreds of them. Dolphins everywhere: crisscrossing the bay in tight formations, leaping, somersaulting, flopping, filling the air with the rapid-fire salvos of their sneezing exhalations.
“They feed at night out in the ocean and come inshore during the day to play,” Dennis Buurman tells me on the bridge. “At times, there can be more than a thousand of them.” Like many of Kaikoura’s new ecocrats, Buurman and his partners in Dolphin Encounters were once crayfishermen. In the late 1980s they set up a diving and fishing charter, but quickly realised it was the dolphins, not scuba diving or angling, that tourists wanted.
The inquisitive dusky dolphins would come to investigate the divers and play with them. These were magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences for those in the water, and Buurman realised this magic could be packaged and sold. He learned to locate the dolphins with marketable consistency, secured permits and set up the business infrastructure. Then he braced for a catapulting ride to success. Within only a few years, Dolphin Encounters was carrying some 25,000 passengers annually, Kaikoura’s number two attraction, behind Whale Watch.
The dolphin boats are drifting now, their engines silent, and from the stern diving platforms people in black wet suits and fluorescent fins slip quietly into the ocean and begin bobbing in its swell. It is a comical sight: a gaggle of well-heeled adults, members of respectable professions at home, floating about in ungainly, overbuoyant suits, making a cacophony of ga-ga noises through their snorkels. Like kids vying for attention when only the noisiest and silliest will get it, they are trying to attract the dolphins to come their way. And the dolphins, it seems, don’t need a second invitation.
What happens next is one of nature’s marvels. A pod of dolphins, moving with balletic synchrony, diverts from its course with a sharp-angle turn to swim through the pod of humans. There is laughter and splashing, a mixture of black human and grey dolphin bodies, one-on-one whirls of sickle fins and Day-Glo snorkels. Then, suddenly, the dolphins are gone, and the people are whooping with delight at their luck.
“These animals are totally wild,” Buurman reminds me, making sure I get the point of all this. “They come and play because they want to.” But I can hardly hear him now. My head is imprisoned in a thick sock-like neoprene hood and I’m itching to jump in myself. Finally, I get the skipper’s OK and slip into the quicksilver water. Instantly, I am surrounded by a group of lithe, ivory-grey bodies, tilting on to their sides, perhaps so they can see me better.
They pass in a flash, then turn and come back, and as I swing round to follow, my hand comes against a soft muscular body, smooth like wet neoprene. Flipper, is that you?
I find myself making noises that perhaps only my mother still remembers, and in reply there comes a barrage of clicks that sound like radio static. Above, the sun breaks through the slabs of cloud and sends out rosy fingers of light. In a moment like this, it’s easy to break into a New Age rhapsody about the cosmic connection that binds us to our brother–sister dolphins, for in their eyes you see an intelligence that is both thrilling and perplexing.
A foghorn calls us back to the boat, and we haul ourselves out. Our faces are blue with cold, and we shiver as we queue to fill our wet suits with warm water from the shower hose. Bringing a hot drink to one’s lips without spilling it is suddenly an impossible task, but never mind the cold and misery. The seemingly childlike silliness of the dolphins, their unadulterated sense of fun, has spread contagiously through the group of humans. Eyes still glow with amazement, mouths cannot stop talking and smiling. “Watching a whale dive is magnificent,” a Belgian TV executive next to me says excitedly, “but this . . . this is beyond words.”
Yes, Buurman tells me later, in such encounters people get a trifle emotional. But for now, on the bridge, he simply grins. He is in the business of selling euphoria. Like Foster, he seems to have a pact with both dolphins and dollars. I feel I should ask him more about his smooth blend of conservation awareness and cetacean merchandise, or about his newly hatched albatross-watching venture, which copies the successful formula. But, having just experienced my own dolphin encounter, having looked into those mischievous eyes that just about winked back at me, a different set of questions bounces around my mind. Who comes to watch whom here? Is there, somewhere in the sunless abyss of the canyon, a place that offers human-shaped toys and memorabilia? Does a clicking voice gush: “Human Encounters this way! See Homo sapiens in the wild! But hurry! The high season is almost over!”
The Kaikoura canyon still holds many no less esoteric secrets, and to probe its depths scientists use submersible vehicles that look like lunar landing modules. Their primary quest is for an otherworldly creature that has been the chief villain of many fantasy tales. From Homer’s Odyssey, through the writings of Aristotle and Pliny, to Norse mythology and more contemporary literature, there are accounts of an animal so large and powerful its thrashings have spawned ship-swallowing whirlpools. This is the archetypal sea monster depicted on the edges of medieval maps, the one that attacked Captain Nemo’s submarine, Nautilus, and terrorised a seaside resort as the titular Beast in the novel by Peter Benchley, author of Jaws.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville depicted it as a “vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length . . . long arms radiating from its centre and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.” Its Norse name, kraken, comes from the word for a tree stump with the roots still attached—a remarkably apt description of Architeuthis (ark-ee-TOOTH-iss) dux, the giant squid, largest invertebrate on Earth.
There is no doubt that these sea monsters exist—their parrotlike beaks are commonly found in the stomachs of sperm whales, and entire squid occasionally wash up on beaches or are caught in fishing nets.
The largest specimen ever measured was found at Wellington’s Lyall Bay, in 1881. It was 17 m long and weighed close to a tonne.
Giant squid inhabit the sunless depths up to a kilometre below the surface. They are well adapted to the perpetual ocean night—their eyes, with a prominent dark iris, are the largest of any living creature, about the size of a human head. In motion, they are missile-shaped and built for speed, but any description of the giant squid’s behaviour is highly speculative because no one has ever seen one alive in its home environment.
Although it is found in all the world’s oceans, Architeuthis dux is thought to be most numerous in the southern hemisphere, particularly around New Zealand (eight sightings from deep-sea fishing vessels in our waters were reported in 1998), with the Kaikoura Canyon considered prime giant squid real estate. Sperm whales—the giant squid’s nemesis—hunt them there. It is thought that, not being exactly sprint swimmers, the whales stun their fast-moving prey with a focused beam of sound.
Human hunters, in the form of marine biologists, have also come to Kaikoura to seek the fabled sea monster. Clyde Roper, an authority on cephalopods with the Smithsonian Institution, and New Zealand’s own squid expert, Steve O’Shea, of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), have collaborated on two giant-squid expeditions, mounted in 1997 and 1999. These joint ventures of the Smithsonian, National Geographic, NASA and NIWA, each with a budget of around $10 million, employed remote-operated underwater vehicles and a one-person submersible called Deep Rover, capable of diving up to 900 m, in the search. The scientists also jigged for giant squid with a “ropecam”—a kind of deep-water fishing rig with a luminous lure as an attractor and a video camera instead of a hook. The expeditions obtained a lot of images of deep-ocean creatures, but not so much as a glimpse of a giant squid.
Then, in March 2002, O’Shea, in a project funded by Discovery Channel, captured some of the elusive creatures in their larval form. This achievement, though scientifically significant, still leaves the public hunger to see the monster of the deep unsated. O’Shea says the search for adult squid will continue. For a few years now, he and Roper have been pondering the logistics of fitting a sperm whale with a video camera to transmit images of what lurks in the dark recesses of the canyon.
Giant squid attract sperm whales, and sperm whales are what attracted Californian cetacean researcher Barbara Todd to Kaikoura in 1982. Back then, she recalls, few people were aware of Kaikoura’s sperm whales—or, indeed, of whales and dolphins frequenting any part of New Zealand’s coast.
Todd and fellow researcher Prentice Bloedel spent the summer of 1982–83 observing the whales, recording their sounds and photographing their tails, the shape and patterning of which are as individual as our fingerprints. Those tails, freeze-framed against the background of distant mountains at the start of a dive, would soon become a national icon, but Todd and Bloedel used them exclusively to identify their study subjects.
By the end of the field trip, Todd says she was “totally sold on Kaikoura,” and a year later she returned, teaming up with local fisherman Roger Sutherland to continue the whale study. She settled in Kaikoura, and she and Sutherland became partners, first in research and adventure, then in a local restaurant and an art gallery, then in Nature Watch Charters, the prototype whale-watching enterprise.
“We wanted to share with people what we saw out there,” Todd tells me over dinner in another of Kaikoura’s restaurants she and Sutherland used to own. “We gave them the opportunity to get involved in the research, and to help fund it.”
There’s no getting away from fishy themes in Kaikoura. At Mussel Boys restaurant, patrons dine beneath a tableau of frolicking whales and molluscs, while at Solice, one of the town’s newer bars, a piscine sculpture overshadows Dominic Bösel as he lines up a shot. A travelling carpenter from Germany, Bösel belongs to a guild that requires him to spend time working away from home while retaining traditional attire.
Passengers assisted by timing the whales’ respiratory patterns, recording the duration of their dives, identifying their distinguishing marks or scars, and logging in the coordinates of sightings. “People got so absorbed,” she says, “they forgot they were on a scheduled trip.”
The original marketing bugle-call of Nature Watch was to “see the big five”: whales, seals, albatrosses and two kinds of dolphin, dusky and Hector’s, all in one trip. It was an alluring summons, and the bookings were in a constant state of overflow. For a while, research and business leapfrogged each other until the latter sprinted ahead and left the former out of sight.
“We could see that we’d have to get bigger boats, an airportlike infrastructure, plenty more staff,” Todd recalls with a hint of nostalgia. “But ultimately, this wasn’t us. It wasn’t what we wanted to do in life.”
They decided to sell the business, and before long a tempting offer came from a developer with, as Todd says, “megabucks and gigaplans.” “If the deal had gone ahead,” she tells me, “you wouldn’t recognise Kaikoura today.” Before you’d known it, the place would have sprouted condos. But this prospect wasn’t them, either. Money aside, it wasn’t the direction Todd and Sutherland felt their town should go. Instead, they sold the business to Whale Watch, for a much more modest price, and now each of the “big five,” if you lump the dolphins together, has become an independent and successful venture in its own right.
Todd’s passion for marine mammals has remained unabated. She has followed them to the balmy Caribbean, and to the subantarctic (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 40). She publishes children’s books on marine themes, gives lectures and, in the United States, runs educational workshops on the lives of whales and dolphins. She is a self-proclaimed biophile—a nature lover—and her lifelong personal crusade, whether on the deck of a whale-watching boat, an Antarctic cruise ship or in a classroom, is to bring people face-to-face with the ocean and its inhabitants. To this end, she tells me, in an age of chronically short attention spans, whales have served as sound-and eye-catching vehicles—the biggest vehicles you can find.
Todd and Sutherland no longer live in Kaikoura, but the imprint they have left is still visible, and not just in the form of business templates but in more intangible ways as well. Even at first glance, Kaikoura seems to encapsulate many of the good things New Zealand has come to stand for: mountains and ocean; forest and wildlife; a relaxed, collect-your-own-seafood lifestyle; unrestricted breathing space. And despite its rapid commercial growth, Kaikoura has managed to retain much of its small-town ambience and sense of identity.
South Bay, with its new marina for the ecoventure boats, is still just an oceanfront fishing village, where local kids play barefoot in the rock pools. In a country that makes more and more of its living from tourism, and markets a “100% pure” image to the world, Kaikoura can be seen not just as a blueprint for success but also as a recipe for how to handle it.
In recognition of this, the town has recently become a New Zealand pilot community for Green Globe 21, a rapidly expanding international web of companies and communities committed to environmentally sustainable tourism. The idea behind Green Globe, which came into being after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is that each member of the scheme takes full responsibility for its “environmental footprint”—its impact on the environment—continually reducing its depth and size. Learning from those who already tread lightly on the earth, they seek to show the way to those who still lumber. So far, over 200 New Zealand organisations have signed up for Green Globe accreditation, but Kaikoura is the first community to have done so, and aims to set a standard for the rest of the country to follow.
“It’s like joining a gym,” Kaikoura’s environmental development officer, Ian Challenger, tells me. “Becoming a member is easy, but then come all the tough work-outs.” As a Green Globe community, all Kaikoura has to do to begin with is take stock of its current situation: its waste disposal, its water and energy consumption, its greenhouse gas and noise emissions, the quality of its air and community relations, and what it does to protect its wildlife and ecosystems. This information provides a benchmark against which improvements can be measured.
True to his name, Challenger has already begun the town’s “keep fit” regimen. “We have committed to a zero-waste programme, and we are about halfway there,” he says. “We are looking at ways to reduce our energy and water consumption. We also want to diversify our tourism offerings to include more land-based activities so that the town does not depend so heavily on the moods of the ocean. And since we make a good living from wildlife and nature, it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect them.”
In this mix of aspirations, both commercial and environmental, lies the greatest value of the Green Globe concept. It isn’t just a lofty ideal but also a solid financial proposition, and as such it is supported by both locals and visitors.
“A growing number of holidaymakers choose their destination on the basis of whether it is ecofriendly or not,” Challenger says. “This is their way of supporting the ideaof a healthier world.” Green Globe’s seal of approval is becoming a hallmark of environmental responsibility. Like a good write-up in a Lonely Planet guide, it ensures a steady flow of tourism business, which is vital for a town such as Kaikoura—and a country such as New Zealand.
Not only is Kaikoura, with its new wineries, chic cafés and an art trail, becoming New Zealand’s answer to the Riviera. It has also spawned a host of peripheral activities, from stargazing and possum-hunting to llama treks and lavender-farm tours—and, to my longdreamed-of delight, a busy little aero club with its own one-teacher flying school. So it is that late one autumn afternoon, on my last day in Kaikoura, I have the chance to see this exemplary fragment of the green globe as Karen Blixen did the African savannah: with the eyes of God.
My teacher, Tahlia Anderson, gives me an introductory briefing, and moments later I’m taxiing on to the runway, a rookie pilot on his first flight in a tiny two-seater Cessna that makes a Morris Minor feel like a limousine. Anderson lets me do the take-off and then most of the flight, ready to muscle in a correction with the dual-control steering. She also periodically makes radio calls so that I can keep my sweating hands on the wheel. “Delta Julia Whiskey. Blue Cessna 150. We are three miles east of the peninsula. 1800 feet. Tracking south.”
Below us, the ocean is corrugated with swell and cleaved with the arrow wakes of boats. Here and there it is whitened with the splashing tomfoolery of dolphins. A surfer is wading into the water in Goose Bay, and from the air, his ivory-coloured board is the size of a fingernail clipping. I lean the plane into a gentle U-turn, which Anderson announces on the airways. Ahead, the Kaikoura Peninsula, shaped like a shoulder blade, is fringed with crescents of bays and reefs.
Unlike its more southern counterparts—Otago and Banks Peninsulas—the Kaikoura Peninsula is not volcanic in origin. It was once an island, until the Kowhai and Hapuku Rivers filled in the gap with gravel from the eroding mountains. The edges of the peninsula drop off into white crumbling cliffs, but its flat-topped surface is green, rural and speckled with sheep.
Like my first scuba dive in Kaikoura more than a decade ago, this flight is an initiation into another way of seeing. It also widens my personal horizon just when I need it most. Earlier in the day, I walked along the town’s waterfront, lined with Norfolk pines, above a beach scoured by the ocean into a steep gravel slope several metres high. I breakfasted and lunched among revelling crowds, yet wondered why I wasn’t as happy as they. Somehow it felt too perfect—a Greek drama with no villains; a painting without shadows, daubed, as it were, white on white. Had I missed something? Where was the catch?
To be sure, I have heard a few grumbles during my stay. Residents who came to Kaikoura for the quiet life complain about the droves of visitors and the bumper-tobumper camper vans in the main street. They feel financially squeezed, too, and question the council’s use of rates money to help fund infrastructure for further tourist development.
A squirt of hot water is a welcome restorative after a heart-warming but chilly swim with dolphins.
From my aerial perspective, however, these niggles recede. The town beneath my new wings is, overwhelmingly, a good-news story in which, despite their many differences and occasional hiccups, people can, and do, work things out. They have a solid plan for the future, they are aware of the balance between wants and needs; aware that, as shark-man Vic Foster puts it, “in the end you only need as much as you can hold in your hand.”
In the Kaikoura I have met, that handful of prosperity has not turned into a fistful of greed. People have found a way to coexist with nature and have committed themselves to sustaining the balance. Their community is certainly one I would like to live within.
I turn to Anderson to share these ruminations, but I see that, in her own way, she must have come to such conclusions long ago. With her face to the window, she is, for the moment, a passenger enchanted by the view, looking down at her home, watching for the whales.