A Super Close Encounter with Albatross, Dolphins and More!

Our marine wildlife adventure continues for the third day in no other than Kaikoura! The deep ocean trench with a complex system of currents sitting just off the coast of the South Island town provides many nutrients for marine life. For a couple of humble backpackers like us, that provides the opportunity to see some incredible ocean-dwelling animals. Already, we have swam with dusky dolphins and seen the full length of whales from the air. Today, we are having a close (and we mean close!) encounter with some of the world’s largest seabirds!

Encountering tea in the Encounter cafe

This is our second time encountering the Encounter base here in Kaikoura, this time at a much more civilised our than our 5 am dolphin swim. Either our body clocks are way out of whack due to our recent early rise or we are just super keen, because we arrive at Encounter 20 minutes early for our Albatross Encounter tour. Nevertheless, we get ourselves some herbal tea at the Encounter Cafe (we don’t want to risk churning up a hot chocolate or a coffee while we’re on the boat) and we stock up on seasickness tablets.

Getting ready for our albatross encounter

Gary, our skipper and guide, meets us outside the cafe and drives us down to the wharf to board a small vessel suitable for our group of six. Already, this feels like an intimate experience: just a local who is going to show us some amazing wildlife.

We head on out to sea, and within about 10 minutes we have seabirds trying to keep up with the boat. Small black and white spotted cape petrels beat their wings quickly then glide from one side of the boat to the other. Perhaps it recognises the boat for food, or perhaps it is just giving us an awesome show to snap up on our cameras!

One of the smaller seabirds, the cape petrel, following our boat One of the smaller seabirds, the cape petrel, following our boat
Get off my food! Get off my food!
Robin has front row seats to the bird show Robin has front row seats to the bird show
Just some of the carnage taking place Just some of the carnage taking place

Super close viewing of some of the largest seabirds

Out in the distance, and outline bigger than all the other seabirds swoops creating a magnificent silhouette against the backdrop of the the Kaikoura mountain range. Undoubtedly, it’s an albatross!

Gary concludes that this is a good place for our first stop: just on the edge of that deep ocean trench. He releases a crate of fish liver tied to some rope off the back of the boat and into the ocean. In no time, that huge wandering albatross swoops onto the water before us. Oh my god, it’s huge! Although its obvious that the food is to attract the birds closer to us, we are still taken by surprise by how close we are to the albatross. Nothing prepares you for the sheer size of this seabird, from its beak that it clacks at other birds to its wings, which it needs to slowly and carefully fold back alongside its body. All in all, it’s so close and so huge that even the shittiest phone camera could take an outstanding picture of this majestic bird. Yet, Laura struggles to snap away in between seeing it with her own eyes and gasping: “Wow” every two seconds.

Giant petrels come in for landing (and the chaos begins)

With the wandering albatross tucking into its fish liver, a screeching noise comes from overhead. Giant petrels make themselves known as it comes in for landing. When these seabirds almost as large as the albatross get too close to each other, they engage in a fight full of beaks and splashes right before our eyes. The albatross is not happy when they join in on the feast, and they all make a slightly scary noise right from the pit of their throat at each other. We can’t believe we are capturing all this action!

Getting Amazingly close to the ALBATROSS!

Leave some for the little guys

While all this big bird carnage is going on, those smaller cape petrels are opportunistic eaters, pecking at all the excess food foolishly wasted by the larger birds. There’s plenty for everyone.

Gary eventually released the food into the water. If you though the way seagulls behave when you drop your fish and chips was unbelievable to watch, then you have not seen anything until you have watched birds five times their size fighting for food! It also gives us a fresh perspective of the seabirds gathered together.

Bird overload!

Next, we head on over to a different part of the trench to see what we can attract. Not only does this give us more opportunity to watch birds in flight, but we also spot a few more different species. Royal albatross, four different species of petrels, five different species of shearwaters, shags, terns and gulls, the abundance of birds out here in mind-blowing!

the angry-looking buller’s albatross

We stop again with the caged food, this time attracting another amazing array of birds. One that strikes us is the Buller’s albatross. Although slightly smaller than a royal or the wandering albatross that it now competing for food with, it has the most stunning facial features. Its beak appears to have a badass yellow racing stripe down the middle and the darker feather around its eyes make it look like it has a constant expression of anger!

The majestic-looking Buller's albatross The majestic-looking Buller's albatross
A New Zealand fur seal sits mighty proud atop his rock A New Zealand fur seal sits mighty proud atop his rock
A bonus sighting of two tiny Hector's dolphins! A bonus sighting of two tiny Hector's dolphins!

Seal pup rock

After spending a significant amount of time with these birds, we head on back towards the coast of kaikoura, passing flocks of Westland petrel and Hutton’s shearwater. Now we follow the coastline of Kaikoura, stopping at a rocky island to get a closer look at a colony of shags, terns, gulls and New Zealand fur seals. We almost have to wipe a tear from our eyes as we watch seal pups hopping over the rocks to suckle from their mother who has just returned from sea. So cute!

Encountering the world’s smallest species of dolphin!

From here, we’re supposedly looking at the stunning coastal scenery with towering mountains. Gary even points out a slip in the mountainside that looks like an owl. (This is taking bird-watching to a whole new level, isn’t it?) Out of nowhere, Gary slows the boat right down. Dolphins!

Right beside the boat, two Hector’s dolphins, the world’s smallest species of dolphin, play in the water. They come up often for air showing us their small bodies, but the water is so clear here that we can even see them courting each other underwater. (Yes, Robin gracefully shouts from above everyone taking photos: “I can see it’s dick!”).

Yep, this was way more than an albatross tour…

We get back to shore a little later than scheduled (worth it!) we are blown away with the amount not only seen but closely observed today! Seeing the albatross out here on the waters of Kaikoura are just the tip of the ice burg.

It’s back to the Dusky Lodge for us for a day of scouring through some pretty awesome photos of seabirds. Join us tomorrow when we are taking a break from the ocean, by doing perhaps the most unique activity in Kaikoura: llama trekking. See you then!

Laura and Robin

A fight about to break out between the albatross and petrels!
A fight about to break out between the albatross and petrels! Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Want more?

Until tomorrow’s blog post, go for a walk, paint a picture, or check out these articles:

We also like to hang out on HerePin, post pretty pictures on Instagram (#BackpackerGuideNZ to be featured), and post daily travel tips dedicated to New Zealand on Facebook!

See you tomorrow!

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