Indigenous Led EcoTourism in Kaikōura

Indigenous Led & Award-Winning EcoTourism in Kaikōura, New Zealand

Here I am on the ferry returning from an epic week in the South Island. Dusky Dolphins are jumping in the long wake behind the massive Inter-Island Ferry, loaded with timber, livestock, cars and people. I’m practicing my indiscreet Indian vocabulary with my new friend from Mumbai, India, Aanimish Limaye, a real star who aims to save highly intelligent animals from cruelty and extinction. The ferry reaches the South Island at Picton, a picturesque little harbor-town based around the business of local and international commuting. After a three hour ferry-ride from Wellington, we boarded three, eleven-passenger vans and drove down the East coast of the South Island of Aotearoa – New Zealand, to Kaikōura – a small peninsula that stretches out from the skirt of the snow-peaked mountains.

Our destination is a whale watching operation began by a Māori family/community, who bought the pastoral peninsula eight years ago. The area is Taonga – a natural treasure and conserved site, home to resident seabird and New Zealand fur seal colonies. The local town was once known as a good spot for local commuters, traveling between Picton and Christchurch, to get a few crayfish for the road, either by jumping in the cold, glacier-blue sea, or by buying them from one of the roadside stands. Then in the 1980’s, as crayfish became less abundant, an entrepreneurial elder from the local Iwi, or Maori tribal entity, decided to improve on previous, small-scale efforts to take tourists whale-watching – changing the destiny of the entire community. The residents knew that whales were consistently present year-round, unlike an most whale-watching sites which often lie along migratory routes.

Kaikōura had been a whaling and sealing port from the 1840’s until 1964, when the last hundred sperm whales were taken, and whales and dolphins can today be spotted from the long, pebbly beach. The presence of this magafauna is thanks to a 3,000-plus foot trench, snaking its way towards land and coming to a dead end just four miles or so off the rocky shore. Upwelling Antarctic currents meet warm tropical currents against the walls of the trench, driving nutrient rich waters into the mesopelagic range and kicking off a food chain that begins with tiny plankton and ends with Orcas, or killer whales, apex predators that are actually large dolphins and that hunt and eat the tongues of the largest whales. Their name is a derived reversal of “whale killer.” A wide range of cetaceans can be spotted in these waters, including Humpbacks, extremely rare Beaked Whales, Minke Whales, and gigantic Blue Whales, but the majority of tourists actually come to see the New Zealand Fur Seals.  Once hunted for their pelts, then shot by competitive fishermen, the fur seals were recently on the brink of extinction. Nevertheless, several decades under protection have seen an increase from five to ten thousand seal pups in the primary rookery, and the population is now considered stable and healthy.

While seals are the main attraction, whale watching is clearly the golden goose of Kaikōura. With a clear vision, and evidently more than a little business savvy, the local whale-watching company’s founders, who were first turned down by every bank, found a sponsor in a Maori owned trust-fund, and gradually developed the company into one of the largest and most successful operations of its kind in the world. Like all eco-tourism, this rapid development over the course of just a couple of decades compromised the environment. New disturbances soon had to be balanced against socio-economic benefits, taking into account a heightened international awareness about the area and its resources. Though growth has leveled off considerably with the economic crisis in the last five years, even since my TA was here with his class just two years ago a few more houses and stores have popped up. There are a few other companies that do dolphin swimming, sea spotting, and helicopter tours, but the whale-watching company owns all of the available permits for their activity, and uses one per each of its four boats, which go out once a day.

Our speaker at Kaikōura, Lisa Bond, started working with the 24 year-old, whale-watching monopoly just after high school, and went from being the swab and carrying out the sick-buckets, to being a captain and then the director of marketing and communications. She came across as s strong salesperson, selling sustainability and environmental efforts improved upon since their earliest days as a business, coming to a climax with the granting of several tourism credits and awards. The company’s concerns include everything from reducing the noise and fuel consumption of the boats, by going from three, 250hp outboards, to a single jet-propelled in-board per-boat, to using biodegradable cleaning products and promoting recycling in town. Moreover, by mandatorily having to fund 50% of the government research that is done on the local marine life, experts have been able to further advise the company, and implement procedures that will hopefully increase the prospect of economic and environmental sustainability.

In the offices of the federal Department of Conservation (DOC) in Nelson, the larger South Island city, Andrew Baxter, a resource manger with 25 years of experience in the department, elaborated on the scientific basis of these study-based regulations. For example, sound refraction from low flying helicopters was calculated along with behavioral observations from the mainland and from small research craft, in order to determine what is acceptable in respect to distances kept from the sound-sensitive animals by air and by water. Another key observation was that dolphins take siestas at noon, and then feed after dark when the nightly planktonic migration makes fish more active, suggesting that boats should never go out at noon, and that in the morning and afternoon they would less likely be interfering with their feeding. Mr. Baxter (ironically) claimed that the regulations were consistently observed, when we had just been on a tour that pulled right alongside sperm whales as if they were parking meters. Upon receiving this information he asked our teacher to make a formal “complaint,” though none of us were really complaining about the spectacular experience we had.

Other research done on these populations does not affect management per-say, but is still fascinating.  For instance, the sperm whales here are all males, which are 33% larger than females and can tolerate the colder waters. At the age of 15, and at about 45 feet in length, the males are ousted from the matriarchal family groups and arrive at these feeding grounds from their wintering range in the South Pacific, where they stay until they are old enough to return to the warmer waters to try their luck with the ladies. Weaker individuals who are at this time rejected, constituting the majority of the population, are then truly forsaken, and travel to Antarctica to live out the rest of their virgin lives in icy solitude. Much observational data is still being re-entered into tables by the company (they lost the digital data once already,) in order to determine long-term seasonal patterns. It seems, for example, that June, July, and August are the best times to see whales because of a concurrent spawning of groupers and the humpback migration. Other feeding patterns are harder to study, for example the Sperm Whales’ correlation with the abyssal Colossal Squids, that have never been seen alive with the naked eye, but that wash up dead in the vicinity, including one measuring 55ft.

Open ocean research is crucial and continuing, but less advanced than what has been done on land.  Mike Morrissey, a DOC manager with 25 years of experience, was at Kaikōura when whale watching still meant puttering out on a three-meter boat with eight people, probably more concerned with good weather than whale sightings. Mike is no doubt more impressed by the burgeoning population of people than the success of the seal population. He stressed the importance of volunteers in curbing the inevitable negative impact that 7,000 visitors a month can have on a fragile coastal ecosystem, such as marine-debris, consisting of discarded or lost beach balls, and of dogs harassing baby seal pups, which are born on land in the bushes, and are highly vulnerable before they reach the safety of the rocky shore.

Aside from the seal colony, there are sea-bird nesting sites particular to this unique area.  Instead of nesting in the nooks and crannies of rocky cliffs as many sea birds do, the local Hutton Shearwaters actually dig burrows into high grassy knolls, making them easy prey for pigs, cats, stoats and rats.  It is believed that the pigs took the biggest toll after the initial slashing and grazing that took place here around the turn of the century.  Now, hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on saving the endangered birds.  The same trust that funded the whale-watching company donated the piece of land for DOC’s bird sanctuary, where 300 chicks a year were transplanted from a nearby colony for three years in a row.  These chicks have to be force-fed by hand every day for at least two months, regardless of weather conditions or the moral of the local volunteers, who do the majority the work. 

A fence, like the one at Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington, keeps out cats, which are efficient and deadly predators that can put a serious dent into the entire effort in a single bloody night.  The hope is that when these fledgling chicks mature and fly out to sea, migrating as far as Tasmania, they will return in around five years to the same location to nest. An expensive sound system playing recorded bird noises from other colonies is meant to help draw them back.  There are only two remaining of the historically noted seven Hutton Shearwater colonies left, so it’s not like the birds have too many options either.  The survival of this species hangs quite literally on the edge, and a landslide can decimate an entire colony, where the natural survival rate is by any standards very low at around 7%.

When weighing the advantages of such work-intensive and seemingly precarious initiatives, it is important to remember that long-term trapping and tagging operations reveal that other species are also benefitting, due to the reduction of predators. These are the small passerine birds, the quaint but eloquent red-billed gulls, little blue Penguins, and native reptiles such as skinks and the illusive and nocturnal black eyed geckos, along with insects like the giant weta and the parasitical worm that it hosts. Mike ended on a low note, reminding us that a lot of experts, and subsequently their reserves of knowledge, have been lost due to cuts in government funding. Community efforts, he explained, consist of a few truly dedicated and highly motivated individuals working in partnership with government-funded experts.  He also noted that when outside parties, such as the filming crew of a BBC documentary, come to promote the areas’ resources, they must have a direct contact person, who can provide localized expertise.