Kaikōura: whale-watching (or wailing at watchers?)

As a picturesque little town nested between mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Kaikōura is known for its marine life encounters. Due to the specific offshore topography including deep dropping continental shelves and a U-shaped canyon, two oceanic currents meet and create an up-welling of deep-ocean nutrients.

The up-welling supports a rich network of marine life, from small plankton and krill, to diverse fish communities and giant squids which attract dolphins and whales (view clip from BBC Earth documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJkwRcgTa7c).

The presence of these marine animals had been a feature of the history of the Kaikōura coast. The move to commodify these features into ecotourist attractions came with the emergence of two major marine safari companies. WhaleWatch, an initiative from Kaikoura’s Ngai Tahu Maori iwi, established a business that enables up to 65,000 tourists a year to view whales using modern catamarans equipped with engines that minimise underwater noise.

Kaikōura. Image from Francis Vallance

Under permit from the Department of Conservation, Dolphin Encounter enables tourists to swim with dolphins in the open sea. For both human and dolphin safety reasons there is a limit of 16 swimmers during their tours.

The way that Kaikoura’s marine wildlife evoke emotional relations with the tourists and its influence on the performance and meaning of this place as an ecotourism destination has been investigated by Cloke, P., & Perkins, H. C. (2005).

While operating in the marine environment, encounters with cetaceans (large marine mammals) are heavily regulated under the New Zealand Marine Mammals Protection Act (New Zealand Government, 1992). This means that whale watching companies are completely reliant upon specific permits from the Department of Conservation for their continuing ability to offer tours.

Regulations include the number of trips per day, times and duration of tours, the particular marine-mammal species to be viewed, the number of swimmers in the water at any one time, the speed of vessels and permitted proximity to cetaceans, when their vessel comes within 300 metres of cetaceans.

WhaleWatch and Dolphin Encounter have established an ecotourism alliance built by relational achievements involving cetaceans. The town of Kaikōura itself has become dominated by cetacean iconography over its range of accommodation, parks, restaurants, and retail services. Thanks to the high abundance of marine mammals, Kaikōura is often listed in the world’s top ten places for whale watching.

WhaleWatch vessel during an up-close encounter with the world’s largest toothed predator, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Image from Travis Nobles

All this means that Kaikōura is full of expectations for tourists visiting the region. Visitors that participate in whale watching or swimming with dolphins seek to escape the trappings of standard beach tourism and feel privileged to experience something out of their known world. However, the excited anticipation is often accompanied by different stages of anxiety. Some of the anxiety is around whether sudden changes in environmental conditions, like weather or swell, will halt the tour. There is always the possibility that the whales and dolphins will not show up and perform as tourists would like to see.

When swimming with dolphins, many visitors have to exit their comfort zone by putting on a wet-suit, swimming in deep sea waters and dealing with unpredictable events (e.g. changing weather and sea conditions). These experiences require competence and confidence in swimming and snorkeling, all while not knowing what to expect.

The whale bone archway in Kaikōura. Image from Mirsasha

Let the great show begin!

As tourists are attracted by marine-animal performances and human interactive experiences, the local tour operators aim to ‘fulfil these anticipations, imaginations, and expectations as part of a commodified and routine staging of place performance’ (Cloke, P., & Perkins, H. C., 2005). Cetaceans can be seen as nonhuman actors (some recognisable as individuals) and the visitors as the audience. The satisfaction of the audience depends mainly on the actors’ performance and the surrounding conditions.

Companies brief and take their clients into a boat, trying to locate and present the cetaceans, organise the encounter by following specific regulations and safety precautions, and bring the clients back to shore. Most encounters with cetaceans are rarely spontaneous, because the performances are carefully staged and mediated using technology (underwater microphones) and the skipper’s knowledge about their presence and resting areas (http://www.whalewatch.co.nz/your-experience/how-we-operate/).

The iconic fluke of a descent sperm whale near Kaikōura. Image from Kerry Dupont

During these encounters, the audience expect to bond with the actors. While being integrally involved in the presence of such performances, the cetaceans represent the powers to form sublime, transcendent, emotional, and aesthetic ‘outside relations‘ (Hetherington and Lee, 2000) between humans and animals.

At the end of a trip, having encountered whales and dolphins, whale watchers were asked by interviewers to describe their feelings. Often they reply with reactions of awe, wonder, and privilege, followed by the admiration of the creature’s existence and the magical nature of the engagement. However, the feeling of deep connections and the special bond both with the aquatic mammals, and with the nature they represent, last the longest.

Playful dolphins. Image from Max Sterk

Disappointments can emerge within moments when marine animals don’t show up or when they behave in an ‘abnormal’ way. Pictures and videos, which represent the encounters and highlight the privilege of such performances, are very important tourist trophies to take back home. If visitors can’t get trophy moments then they are not able to fully enjoy these experiences.

Although many encounters are staged with a high guarantee of success, it also includes considerable chance and uncertainty because wild animals are not always predictable. Hence it is possible that visitors come back from their tour without seeing any cetaceans.

What if the nonhuman actors don’t want to perform?

The behaviour of the dolphins and whales is often unpredictable and sometimes not aligned with the desired performance, even when individual whales and dolphins became habituated to human proximity. This can be misinterpreted as tour operators often constitute that most marine mammals feel comfortable with the presence of humans.

There is evidence that whale and dolphin behaviour often changes when vessels approach (compare with Schaffar et al., 2013). I personally have experienced this when a pod of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were attracted by my family’s small boat in the Mediterranean Sea. The dolphins used the boat’s bow wave for bow riding and really enjoyed it. Because they were so focused on us and time was flying, I thought that they probably forgot to follow their daily routine.

Human ecotourism activity can interfere with normal feeding patterns, respiratory intervals, rates of traveling and socialising, and incur low-level long-term stress which could impact on reproductive and immune systems.

Two inquisitive dolphins near the vessel. Image from Max Sterk

Richter et al. (2003) investigated the effects of whale watching activities on sperm whale surfacing and vocalisation patterns in Kaikōura, and proposed management options. They came up with the following recommendation: ‘Maintain the current level of permitted whale watching but issue no further permits. This study found responses to vessel presence at the current level of whale watching. WhaleWatch Kaikōura, even at their busiest, are currently using less than 60%* of their permitted number of trips. Hence maintaining only the current permits could still allow whale watching to expand significantly.
*due to unfortunate weather and sea conditions

By following strict regulations and including research and science, Kaikōura’s performance, is definitively a world-leading example for productive and sustainable whale watching. It clearly shows that successful encounters with dolphins and whales result in intense and life-changing emotional pleasures of tourists and its memories will last forever.

The author Max Sterk is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught jointly at Lincoln University and University of Göttingen. He wrote this article as part of his assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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