Kaikoura – Guide for Backpackers
Have a whale of a time in Kaikoura!
The adventure in Kaikoura extends from the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura mountain ranges all the way out into the Pacific Ocean. One day, you could be hiking on top of the beautiful Mt Fyffe, overlooking the town and the peninsula. The next day, you could be out at sea swimming with dusky dolphins in their natural habitat. Kaikoura really is one of those unique places!
The marine life has been a huge attraction for Kaikoura since the first human discovery by the Maori between 800 and 1000 years ago. European whalers settled here between 1842 and 1922. Today, people come here to appreciate whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds living it up thanks to the nutrients provided by the Kaikoura Canyon deep underwater.
[Update: Since the 2016 earthquake, many of Kaikoura’s activities are still up and running. Be aware that some hiking tracks are closed. We have provided updates in this guide where appropriate].
Things you can’t miss in Kaikoura
- Watch the impressive sperm whales emerge from the ocean!
- Swim with dusky dolphins and New Zealand fur seals
- Spend an obscene amount of money on crayfish
- Get on some South Island surf at Mangamaunu Beach
- Hike to the summit of Mt Fyffe for the best views in Kaikoura!
Why does Kaikoura attract so much wildlife?
Starting from just 500 metres off the coast of Kaikoura is the Kaikoura Canyon. This continental shelf holds a deepwater habitat that plunges to more than 2km. The muddy and murky depths holds creatures like bristle worms, heart urchins, spoon worms and sea cucumbers – a great feast for fish. All these nutrients are brought to the water’s surface with the cold currents off the South Island and combining with warmer currents from the north. In turn, this attracts all the marine life we are so eager to see, such as whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds. Amazing!
Check out the highlights 5 Top Wildlife Activities in Kaikoura.
Whale watching in Kaikoura
All year round you can see the world’s largest toothed whales: giant sperm whales! You can either have a close encounter by taking a boat tour or see the whole body of the whales from the sky by plane or by helicopter. Either way, the sperm whales rarely let viewers down, as they are around all day, every day. Make sure to book your whale watching tour early, especially in summer.
The sperm whale is just the highlight of these whale watching tours, as what else you encounter can change from time to time. Between December and March, you are more likely to see orcas. You are also likely to see pilot whales, seal colonies, pods of dolphins, and a variety of seabirds like the huge royal albatross.
Dolphin and Seal swimming in Kaikoura
Watching wildlife is great and all, but actually going into their natural habitat and pretty much acting like a dolphin or a seal is something else!
The most common dolphin in Kaikoura is the small dusky dolphins, which are often intrigued by humans as much as we are intrigued by them. Expect them to dive under you as you squeal like a dolphin to get their attention – really, this is what the tour guides advise you to do. They may even do some acrobatics for you.
No doubt you will see seals being lazy on the rocks from a few viewpoints around Kaikoura, but there is also the rare opportunity to snorkel with them in Kaikoura and see how they behave in the water. Book your tour with Seal Swim Kaikoura here.
Kaikoura seal colony Locations
The best things in life are free and there are several locations to watch the seals either sun-bathing or the seal pups playing in the winter months… for free! Although you can get really close to the seals, it is advised to keep 10 metres away from them.
Ohau Stream [Update: closed due to earthquake damage]
Located off the main highway at Ohau Point 30km north of Kaikoura, a quick walk to this waterfall will bring you to a nursery for baby seals in the winter.
At the end of Fyffe Quay along the peninsula, you’ll reach the Point Kean car park where you’ll notice the seal colony almost instantly. They may even be in the car park waiting for you!
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
There are two seal colonies to look at from the walkway.
Crazy for Crayfish
People have been “cray cray” for crayfish for hundreds of years, as the name Kaikoura actually means “meal of crayfish” in Maori. You can’t miss the huge crayfish sculpture attached to The Lobster Inn as you drive through town. Although crayfish remains dominant on the Kaikoura menus, it is a bit pricey. You have to “shell” out about NZ$50 for half a crayfish or “fish” out around NZ$100 for a full one! Not great for the backpacker budget, but if you are a diehard seafood fan, then it’s probably worth it.
SUrfing in Kaikoura
Like most places in New Zealand: if there’s surf, there are surf lessons and hire to accommodate your needs. Due to the Hikurangi Trench, there are swells coming straight out of deep water, which can create big powerful hollow waves. This is more consistent in the winter than summer, but you’ll need a full wetsuit all year round in these chilly southern waters.
There are two main surf spots in Kaikoura: Kahutara and Mangamaunu. If you need some lessons, there’s a surf school teaching both surfing and stand-up paddleboarding.
Find out more in 7 Places to Surf in the South Island.
Hiking in Kaikoura
With so much happening in the water, it can be pretty easy to forget about the offerings on land! Kaikoura is sandwiched between two excellent hiking locations, the Kaikoura mountain ranges and the peninsula. Here are the three top walks and hikes in the area:
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
Walk around the perimeter of the peninsula, stopping at various vantage points for seal, red-billed seagull and shearwater bird colonies. The 3-hour loop walk starts and ends at the Point Kean car park.
Get the best views in Kaikoura on a clear day from the top of the 1602m high Mt Fyffe. The start of the track is 15km from town via Ludstone, Swamp and Postman’s Roads. The hike is 8 hours return to the summit or 5 hours return to the hut, which also has good views. Mountain bikers can also take their bike up there, but need to be experienced to handle the ascent and descent.
Hinau Track [Update: Track closed due to earthquake damage]
This 45-minute loop walk through the forest also starts from the Mt Fyffe car park.
If you have more time in Kaikoura…
- Kayak to seal colonies along the peninsula coastline on either a tour or freedom hire
- Go on a half-day scuba-diving tour to find more marine life and rocky formations
- During the winter season, take a trip to Mt Lyford ski field, just an hour drive away from Kaikoura
- See a piece of Kaikoura history at Fyffe House, the only surviving building from the town’s whaling era
- Visit the Puhi Puhi Scenic Reserve 17km north of Kaikoura to find walking tracks and native birdlife
- Stroll around the Garden of Memories in town to see whalebone arches
- See more things to do in 8 Kaikoura Must-Dos
Where to stay in Kaikoura?
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