Kaikoura Whale Watching: A Marine Life Mecca?

Kaikoura Whale Watching
Kaikoura Whale Watching

The Kaikoura whale watching experience is an interesting blend of ‘location, location, location,’ mixed in with an untold, deep and mythical significance for the native people of New Zealand. 

Local tour operators of the popular coastal town have struck gold with the area, often praised as one of the best destinations in the world for tourists to flock to with hopes of catching a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.

Alongside this good dose of geographical fortune lies an indigenous legend shared amongst the Kati Kuri people of Kaikoura, who believe that one of their descendants rode on the back of a giant whale to Kaikoura from the present-day Cook Islands. 

After a violent family spat with his elder brothers, the man named Paikea was stranded on a piece of wood from a canoe before the whale appeared and lifted him onto its back before taking him to Kaikoura so that he could be safe and start a new life. 

The name Paikea translates in Maori as ‘tame whale.’

Species of Whales in Kaikoura

The Kaikoura Peninsula is home to Giant Sperm Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales and the one that I had my fingers crossed for; The Orca, also known as a Killer Whale. However, a little “did you know” fact here, where I pretend to be smart even though I only found this out on the day…it turns out that Orcas are not whales and are in fact dolphins!

The toothed whale belongs to the oceanic dolphin family and is unsurprisingly the largest member of this dynasty and it turns out that it’s not the only dolphin to be spotted in town.

Are There Dolphins in Kaikoura?

There are species of dolphins in Kaikoura and the second bit of good news is that Dusky dolphins live in this part of the Pacific Ocean. While the Kaikoura Peninsula is home to plenty of species of dolphin, many of them keep to themselves, whereas Dusky dolphins are renowned for being playful and curious and love to interact with humans.

So if you happen to be as lucky as I was, you will see whales and dolphins as a cheeky extra bonus.

Kaikoura Whale Watching Season

There is no direct answer to this as it depends entirely on the time of year and what type of whales you wish to see. 

There are four main types of whales that you can see in the area, all with their own seasons. While the resident sperm whales can be seen all year round, the orcas can be seen from December to March with humpback whales and blue whales coming to the region in June and July. 

The dolphins that make this area their home are visible almost all year round, so you will enjoy them regardless of the time you visit. It’s important to remember that the seasons are opposite in New Zealand to that of the northern hemisphere, and so June and July are actually their winter months, so be sure to bring warm clothing and dress for being out and about in chilly climates.

Whale Watch Kaikoura Prices

A sign for Whale Watching in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Here’s a handy quick reference list to help you plan your next trip to the area. These prices are specific to Kaikoura Whale Watching – the company that I used, which promises an 80% refund if you do not see a whale!

All prices are in New Zealand dollars.

By Boat

Adults $145

Children 3-15 years $60

Children under 3 are not permitted

By Plane

Adults (15+) $180

Children (4-14) $75

Infants to children aged 3 – Free

By Helicopter

30-minute flight for 2 passengers $325

3-4 passengers $220

40-minute flight for 2 passengers $395

3-4 passengers $265

How To Get To Kaikoura

The ocean in Kaikoura

From Christchurch: We were lucky enough to explore the whole of the south island of New Zealand via a massive, brilliant motorhome. If you opt to drive there yourself like us it’s a nice, scenic three-hour drive max. (Pretty much every drive in New Zealand is scenic eye-candy in this country).

Railway romantics can catch a 7:00 am or 9:30 am train with Coastal Pacific for $99 or $144 (NZD) depending on whether you want a reclining seat and local food on your short journey.

If you want the logistics taken care of so that you get picked up from your Christchurch accommodation, taken to Kaikoura and are dropped back off in the evening after a bonus wine tour, then consider this Get Your Guide package.

You can also catch a bus for $30 (NZD).

From Picton: Most travellers arrive in Picton from the sea via ferry. Here you can also rent a car, take a bus or catch a train to Kaikoura.

My Kaikoura Whale Watching Experience

A humpback whale's tail pops out of the water in Kaikoura, New Zealand

As we settled onto the boat, our guide calmly and confidently described which different types of sea life we might encounter via a large 3-D display about all things cetacean. 

He confirmed that the hype was real; as far as cetacean habitats go, Kaikoura is a perfect storm, so to speak. Deep trenches and canyons just offshore, combined with warm waters and abundant food sources combine to attract sea life of all varieties. 

After being prepped for what to look out for, the boat guides lowered a device into the water that emitted a strange sound and before we knew it, a small pod of dusky dolphins came to investigate. I’m far from a patient man, but I have learned over the years when trying to spot majestic animals that it’s all about the waiting game, and here we were 5 minutes in, and already a sighting!

They danced around the boat as me and the rest of the passengers all vied for the best vantage point. I was so amazed that I forgot to take a photo.

The early excitement transcended into anxiety as we looked around for whales for the next half an hour.

Then it happened. A magnificent humpback whale rose to the surface just off the boat’s side. She did a lazy roll and as the light glinted off her sleek, wet skin, she made a dynamic tail flip and disappeared beneath the sea before repeating the exact same show a couple of minutes later. 

This time I had the consciousness to get a few photos even though the beauty of the moment almost took me over again. As you can see, it’s not exactly going to be a National Geographic winner but the moment meant way more to me than the photo.

Go and see it for yourself, the hype is real. Kaikoura whale watching really is a marine life mecca.

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A whale shows off its tail in the ocean
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Anthony Middleton

Former loser who took a risk. Visited over 100 countries. Trying my best to not get skinny-fat during Covid.


  1. Flora on December 18, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    This is amazing, I enjoy reading.

    This is my first time on your blog and I’m impressed. Thank you for this Info and the resources.

  2. Faraway Worlds on December 21, 2020 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing – will definitely be adding this one to the local travel list for next year! I think my little one will enjoy seeing all the marine wildlife too 🙂

  3. Travel Center UK on December 24, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article! Kaikoura is an excellent place to go whale watching 😉 . Whale watching is one of the most exciting activities for people who love seas.

  4. myline on February 26, 2021 at 8:39 am

    Kaikoura is also one of the only places in the world where you can easily spot sperm whales.

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In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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