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The small town of Kaikoura sits on the north east coast of the South Island, on a narrow plain perched between the beautiful Seaward Kaikoura Range to the west, and the invisible Kaikoura Canyon to the east. These natural features drive local ecosystems, and the local economy.

The Kaikoura Canyon plunges over a km beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean just a short boat ride from Shore. Convergence and up welling of deep currents in the canyon are the foundation of a rich food chain, supporting a large variety of fish, marine mammals, and what is probably the best and most accessible pelagic birdwatching in the world. A Kaikoura pelagic trip is a must for any birder who gets a chance. Albatross Encounter has pelagic trips scheduled three times a day in summer and twice a day in winter, weather and minimum passenger numbers permitting. Trips last about two and a half hours. This is a short trip by any pelagic birders standards, but such is the magic of the place that stunning views of a large variety of seabirds are almost guaranteed. Actually, albatrosses are guaranteed. Longer trips can be arranged for those who are really keen to get further from shore. A post in the forum may help you meet minimum passenger numbers.

Cambell albatross

A beautiful Campbell albatross, photographed at close range on an Albatross Encounter trip. Photo by Neil Fitzgerald.

The list of possibilities is long—I ticked an average of 11.5 species/subspecies of tube-nose on my last four trips—and the variety so good that even back-to-back trips can produce quite different lists. Albatrosses are the main attraction for many birdwatchers at Kaikoura, and for good reason. Wandering, northern royal and southern royal albatross can be seen here, as well as many of the smaller albatrosses, including black-browed, Campbell, white-capped, Salvin’s, Chatham Island and Buller’s. A great albatross in flight against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains is always a memorable sight. Kaikoura is also the best place to see Hutton’s shearwaters, because although they disperse around northern NZ waters and across the Tasman to Australia, they breed nowhere else on Earth. From spring through to autumn, Hutton’s shearwaters feed in the waters around Kaikoura, and breed high in the Seaward Kaikoura mountains. If you can be on the water at sunrise you might see large rafts of them on the water, preparing for a day at sea after flying down from their alpine colony or flying past in endless streams at other times. They also gather in thousands on the water close to shore in the evening, waiting to return to their colonies under cover of darkness. Several other species of shearwaters are commonly seen, as well as prions, many petrels and other seabirds like little penguins, Australasian gannets, white-fronted and Caspian terns, and all three native species of gull. The Albatross Encounter website has a full list of sightings from previous trips.

Spotted shag

Spotted shag in breeding plumage, Ohau Point, Kaikoura, NZ. Photo by Neil Fitzgerald.

A Kaikoura pelagic is relatively easy and affordable, but it’s not the only way to see birds here. Tide permitting, it is possible to walk around the end of the peninsular from Point Kean to South Bay, and return by the walking track across the top of the headland. The headland can be a great vantage point for a bit of sea watching, but it’s not all about pelagic birds. Two red-billed gull colonies are passed on the coastal walk, occupied by thousands of birds in the spring and summer. Spotted shags are common along the Kaikoura coast, and can often be seen on rocks near the road to Point Kean. Other birds likely to be seen are little shags, white-fronted terns and black-backed gulls. A large area of rock is exposed at Point Kean at low tide, and this is a good place to look for banded dotterels, variable oystercatchers, and in summer ruddy turnstones and the occasional wandering tattler.

Curiously, one of the birds most eagerly sought by many birders visiting Kaikoura is an introduced species. Cirl buntings were introduced to New Zealand in the late 1800s but are absent or rare in much of the country. One good place to try for cirl buntings is at the carpark at the end of South Bay Parade, at the southern end of the peninsula walkway. They often associate with yellowhammers, so flocks of these are worth careful checking, and don’t be too quick to write something off as a yellowhammer anywhere around Kaikoura. With such an abundance and diversity of birds, I wasn’t too surprised to see a New Zealand falcon at Point Kean early one morning. After flying over the carpark she landed on the walkway, just a few metres away, checked me out for a few minutes then disappeared.

Several tracks in the foothills near Kaikoura are good for common South Island forest birds, such as bellbirds, New Zealand pigeons, brown creepers, grey warblers and tomtits. Consider the Hinau Track (a 45 minute loop starting from the end of Postmans Road) or the Fyffe-Palmer Track (leading from the end of Mt Fyffe Road and taking about 1 hour and 45 minutes). Get up-to-date track information from the visitor centre in town.

Kaikoura, like many coastal communities around New Zealand was once a whaling station, where sperm whales caught in the close deep water were dragged for processing. Thankfully all marine mammals are now fully protected in NZ, and though whales are still a major industry in Kaikoura, it is now solely for the joy of watching them. Sperm whales are the most often seen, but there is always a chance of seeing any of several other species. As well as whale watching trips, there are options to see dusky dolphins and to swim with seals. Kaikoura is a great place for any wildlife lover. NZ fur seals are easily found hauled out at many places along the coast. Best places are the colonies at Point Kean and Ohau Point (30 km north of Kaikoura), both of which you can drive right to. In fact, care should be taken at Point Kean and when walking around the peninsula as seals often sleep close to, or on roads, walkways and carparks. Read and observe the warning signs posted at the colonies, and always keep a respectful distance from fur seals.

New Zealand is the seabird capital of the world, and Kaikoura is surely the best introduction to some of the seabirds that make New Zealand’s oceans and islands their home.

Kaikoura pelagic
Gibson’s wandering albatrosses, cape petrels and giant petrels fight for berley behind an Albatross Encounter boat while a white-capped albatross approaches on the wing. Fantastic close views of many seabirds are virtually assured on an Albatross Encounter trip, and all within sight of the Kaikoura Peninsula and the mountains beyond. Photo by Neil Fitzgerald.

Getting there

Located about halfway between Christchurch and Picton, Kaikoura is easy to get to by road (via State Highway 1) or train. The trip along the coast north of the town is particularly attractive. Kaikoura is well equipped to cater to the many visitors that come to enjoy the local wildlife, so there are numerous places to stay and eat, catering to all tastes and budgets. Being a small town, most things are within fairly easy walking distance.

Useful resources

Albatross Encounter
Department of Conservation
Kaikoura information

Neil Fitzgerald

Neil Fitzgerald has had a lifelong interest in New Zealand wildlife, particularly birds, and this lead nicely to a career with a Crown Research Institute and as a semi-professional wildlife photographer. In 2009 Neil created and he is also a moderator of the Australasia chapter of the photography site

Neil has an extensive collection of images of New Zealand birds and other wildlife from around the country and you can see some of them on his photography website:

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