Kaikōura is one of the few places in the world where Sperm Whales can be seen year-round and close to shore. They congregate here because the 3km deep Kaikōura Canyon runs right up against the coast creating a rare system of sea currents that sustain an incredibly rich marine food chain. Sperm Whales are at the top of this food chain and the abundance of fish ensures they make the waters of Kaikōura their home.
Sperm whales are named after the spermaceti oil (wax) that they produce in the spermaceti organ located in their head. It is because of this oil that man hunted the sperm whales, going after the prized spermaceti oil that was used to make smokeless candles during the 19th century.
Sperm whales are one of the deepest diving whales, they usually dive hundreds of meters to find their food but have been recorded at depths of over 3000m which is phenomenal. They are also the champion breath holders generally averaging dives of between 40-60 minutes but have been recorded at ‘holding their breath’ for over 2 hours.
Sperm whales eat prey found on or near the ocean bottom, squid is their main diet but they also eat sharks and various bony fish. Unlike other species of whales that feed only during certain times of the year, sperm whales feed all the time, they can eat around 3% of their body weight each day which for an adult male sperm whale can mean around 1.5 tonnes of food per day.
Kaikōura plays host to the male sperm whales only, with the females and the young whales found in the warmer tropical waters. It is a feeding ground for the young males who come here to feed them and build themselves up making themselves more socially and sexually acceptable for later on in life.
Did you know?
- Sperm whales only have teeth on their lower jaw
- Sperm whales bodies can be broken down into 3 thirds – Head / Torso and Tail
- Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal – up to 9kgs in weight
- The last sperm whale hunted in Kaikōura was on December 21st 1964
A species of baleen whale that migrates from the Antarctic to the tropics to mate and give birth in winter. Humpback Whales tend to feed within 50m of the water's surface, taking krill and shoaling fish.
They are frequently seen in Kaikōura during winter months (Jun / Jul / Aug) where they sometimes perform spectacular displays of spyhopping, breaching, lobtailing and flipper slapping. The tendency for Humpbacks to come very close to shore means they can become tangled in craypot lines. In 2003, a local Kaikōura fisherman, Tom Smith, was accidentally killed while trying to free a trapped Humpback Whale in South Bay.
The humpback has the most diverse techniques of feeding methods of all baleen whales. Its most inventive technique is known as bubble net feeding: a group of whales blows bubbles while swimming in circles to create a ring of bubbles. The ring encircles the fish, which are confined in an ever-tighter area as the whales swim in smaller and smaller circles. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the bubble net, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp. This technique can involve a ring of bubbles up to 30m in diameter and the cooperation of a dozen animals. Some of the whales take the task of blowing the bubbles through their blowholes, some dive deeper to drive fish toward the surface, and others herd fish into the net by vocalizing. Humpbacks have been observed bubble net feeding alone as well.
Humpbacks have a distinctive 3-6m (10-20ft) heart shaped to bushy blow. They will generally breathe every 20-30 seconds for two or three minutes then dive in their peculiar ‘humpback’ fashion, staying under the water for 3 to 28 minutes.
- The varying shape and colour patterns on the humpback's tail flukes and dorsal fin are as individual in each animal as are the fingerprints on humans.
- Humpback Whales frequently breach, throwing two thirds of more of their bodies out of the water and splashing down on their backs.
- Humpback Whales produce the longest and most varied songs in the animal world.
Blue Whales are the largest, heaviest and loudest animal that has ever lived on Earth. They can be as long as a Boeing 737 and six times as heavy. Their heart is the size of a small car and their tongue as big as an African Bull elephant.
The whistle emitted by a Blue Whale is so loud it can be heard underwater across entire oceans. The Blue Whale blow is over 9 metres high and so large it forms a cloud that floats above the sea long after the whale has dived. A single Blue Whale needs to eat as much as 4.5 tons of krill a day to fuel their massive bodies, filtering them from the water with 400 pairs of baleen plates and feeding around the clock. The name 'Blue Whale' comes from their startling electric blue skin pigmentation that gives off a spectacular neon glow under water.
Once numbering around 225,000, Blue Whales have been hunted to near extinction. In the 1930-31 whaling season alone 30,000 Blue Whales were killed, mostly by British and Norwegian whalers. Less than 2,000 remain in the Southern Hemisphere today. They have been protected since 1965. Blue Whales are a member of the Fin and Sei whale family. The endangered Sei Whale is still killed by Japanese whalers. All three whales are seasonal visitors to Kaikōura.
Blue whales are sighted off the Kaikōura coastline at various times throughout the year, generally on a mission as they are passing through, when sighted on our tours it is very special indeed.
Southern Right Whale
Right whales have large wide bodies, broad flippers and no dorsal fin on their back. They are dark grey to black in colour. A right whale's head is covered in raised patches of rough skin which are called ‘callosities’. The callosities are usually a whitish colour. Different types of whale lice live on the callosities.
Right whales have a huge mouth! Their baleen is up to 3m long and they have over 500 pieces inside their mouth. The baleen has fine hairy fringes on the ends which helps to trap their food. Right whales feed on copepods which is a type of zooplankton. Each copepod is about the size of a grain of rice and the whales eat about 3 tonnes every day when they are feeding.
This whales slow speed and the fact that its body is so rich in oil that it floats (even when dead) led it to be the “right whale” to catch. With them being an easy catch right whales suffered most of all from the centuries of slaughter.
They are an endangered species because they were hunted for meat, whalebone and valuable oil. They are slow breeders, which means that the species has been slow to recover. They have been protected since 1937 and have shown some signs of recovery.
- Their tails are up to 7m across and they often lift their tails into the air and then 'sail' across the water!
- Southern Right whales are up to 17m long, have a V-shaped blowhole due to the wide spacing of their blowholes, and a distinctive arched mouth.
- There are both northern and southern right whales.
Minke Whales are the smallest of the baleen whales. Both the Dwarf and Antarctic Minkes are found in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Minke whales were hunted extensively by whalers during the 70’s and 80’s with hundred still being killed today under the guise of scientific research in the Southern Oceans.
Pygmy Sperm Whale
Pygmy Sperm Whales are miniature versions of Giant Sperm Whales.
They have the same large bulbous head containing spermaceti oil and a short narrow mouth with no teeth on the upper jaw. They eat small fish, deep-sea shrimps and cuttlefish.
When startled, the Pygmy Sperm Whale emits a dense cloud of reddish-brown intestinal fluid that acts as a decoy much like the ink of a squid. Small numbers of Pygmy Sperm Whales continue to be killed by Japanese and Indonesian whalers.
The chance of seeing any of the 11 species of beaked whales known to inhabit New Zealand waters is slight. In some cases the only proof of their existence is their bodies washed up along the coastline.
The Gray’s, Arnoux, Cavier’s and the Southern strap-toothed whale is the most common seen in New Zealand waters.
Beaked whales live in the open ocean and dive around 300m for squid.
They vary in length from 3m to 13m, they have a small head, beak and bulging forehead.