5 March 1999
On Board the Department of Conservation Vessel TOHORA
South Bay, Kaikoura, New Zealand

Listening to the Whales - Part One

Last night, Bernard, Mike Sweeney and I walked along the Esplanade into Kaikoura against an incredibly strong wind blowing in off the ocean. As we walked, Bernard and I talked about our plans for tomorrow when we were hoping to be able to get out early and spend the day listening to the whales. However, with the winds being what they were and the seas being whipped into a frenzy, neither one of us held out much hope that the weather would cooperate. After a nice dinner, which was to be Mike's last in New Zealand since he was heading back to the States in the morning, we stepped outside only to be greeted by absolute calm. The wind had completely died. The recently chaotic sea had subsided into a series of large, yet fairly regular swells which if conditions remained the way they were, would probably be manageable enough to be handled tomorrow by our little, inflatable boat.

Bernard had arranged for us to be picked up at 6:30 a.m. by Keith Dunlop of the Department of Conservation (DOC) who was going to take us out in one of their boats. Bernard had packed up the electronics shop that his room becomes when he is not out on the water and had a stack of gear piled high outside of his motel room door as Keith pulled into the driveway in his pickup truck. Trying to make as little noise as possible so as not to wake the other guests, we loaded everything into the back of the truck and headed off to pick up the boat on its trailer. Driving through the streets of Kaikoura at 6:30 in the morning reminded me that there are still places in the world where 24 hour convenience stores or supermarkets that never close are not the rule. Although I appreciated the quiet of the morning, there was a part of me that had hoped that we would have passed a place that offered hot coffee. All of us believed the weather report that we had heard predicting the winds to pick up by noon, so we assumed that we would be home by lunchtime. consequently, none of us had thought to bring along much in the way of food.

We drove for a while until we reached what looked like a large garage (it was hard to tell since the sun had not yet made its way over the mountains) where the DOC boat was stored. Bernard eagerly walked around to the side door, placed his hand on the knob , started to turn it when all of a sudden, a loud, piercing alarm broke the early morning silence. A couple of words were exchanged between Keith and Bernard which resulted in Keith jumping back into the truck and driving off into the night. This now left the two of us standing there with the alarm blasting in the background, expecting any minute to be surrounded by the New Zealand equivalent of a swat team. After what seemed like an eternity, the alarm finally stopped which Bernard explained was because Keith had gone back to the DOC offices to turn the switch to the "off" position. We opened the door, rolled up the large access bay and were ready to attach the boat's trailer to the pickup truck by the time Keith returned.

We made our way around the Kaikoura peninsula until we reached the boat launching facility which looked like a parking lot, but rather than being filled with cars, was filled with boats of every kind. In most harbors that I have ever visited, boats are usually moored IN the water. However here in Kaikoura, every single boat that I saw was docked onshore at night. All the fishing boats, pleasure boats and Whale Watchtm boats were resting comfortably on large trailers parked on the asphalt or gravel of the parking lot. Next to most boats was a large tractor. I was soon to learn that launching a boat in Kaikoura not only requires the usual assortment of maritime skills, but also demands the ability to drive tractors, trucks or cars into the ocean. While we were getting our boat ready, one of the local fishing boats, pulled by a giant blue tractor, drove past us. After making a few adjustments to the trailer they drove full speed - in reverse - directly into the sea. Just when I thought the tractor was going to start plowing the bottom of the bay, it stopped and the boat slid gently off the trailer and into the sea.

Keith jumped onboard our boat, Bernard slid behind the wheel of the truck and I got out the way with the excuse that I wanted to document the process with my camera. The truck's engine roared as Bernard backed it down the ramp and just as the tires were no longer visible, he slammed on the brakes and the bright yellow DOC boat slid into the water. Keith started the boat's outboard engine and headed over to the dock to pick us up as Bernard parked the truck .

We headed off to the southwest towards the area at the head of Kaikoura Canyon where Bernard had routinely observed whales during his previous trips. Keith pulled out a well used navigational chart and showed me where we were heading. It was a beautiful morning and the sea was remarkably calm considering yesterday's strong winds. It felt great to be out on the water again. Soon after leaving the dock we saw the Kaharoa off in the distance, lit by the rays of the newly rising sun, anchored in South Bay. She had made the trip down from Wellington during the night and had arrived with the sunrise. It looks like the expedition has finally begun.

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