Whale and Dolphin Watching Seasons for Kaikoura

Whale and Dolphin Watching Seasons for Kaikoura

New Zealand
New Zealand

When Is the Best Time

Kaikoura is a popular tourist destination and the best location in New Zealand for year-round whale and dolphin watching. You encounter resident sperm whales with a 95 % sighting chance throughout the year, and it is also the best place in the world to spot sperm whales.

A school of dolphins

Dusky dolphins, common dolphins, and hector dolphins are also spotted year-round. There are two different seasons for whale watching, however, ocean life - nature is not hundred % predictable. Exceptions occur, and you watch an unexpected pod of orcas during the winter.

Why is Kaikoura One of the Best Places to Spot Whales?

Sperm-Whale fluke shortly before diving
Sperm Whale in Kaikoura - My recommended Tour by GYG at no extra cost.

A U-shaped underwater canyon near the shore is almost 60 km long with a depth of more than 2000 meters. Two different currents meet up here; the sea is nutrition-rich, attracting the whales. Because of this geological fact, Kaikoura has one of the world's highest densities of marine life. Some say it has the highest density, but I was in Galapagos, and I think nothing can top it, but I am not a scientist.

A pilot whale far above the surface
A pilot whale - actually a dolphin member.

Continue reading for my new 2022 guide to figure out all details on when to spot the different whale types in Kaikoura and what kind of trips are offered.

Two Whale Watching Seasons | Migrating Whales

Blue whale with spray fountain
The rare sighting of a blue whale - you see most from a plane - Tour by GYG

Besides the resident sperm whales, which you can spot throughout the year, there are two different whale watching seasons for migrating whales around the Kaikoura coastline and the canyon.

Two humpback whales on their migratory route
Humpback sightings increased almost back to pre-whaling level.

According to experts, the best time to see whales in Kaikoura is in the winter, from June to August. During the winter, the whales migrate from the feeding grounds in the Antarctic to warmer tropical water like Tonga for mating and breeding.

Warmer Season - October until April

An orca in the deep sea at Kaikoura
We were lucky to spot a small orca pod.

From late spring until early fall, usually from October to April, you may spot orcas passing by in pods of 6 - 12 whales or pilot whales. Pilot whales are most likely to see from September to March, and sometimes you spot blue whales as well. While there are fewer sightings of migrating humpbacks and southern right whales in summer, a whale watching tour during the warmer season is an absolute must-do. You will not be disappointed.

A pod of dolphins
Spotting jumping dolphins is always magical.

Why? We spotted a dolphin school with at least several hundred jumping around our boat and several sperm whales close. The summer is pleasant with temperatures above 20°C, and a whale watching trip is much more comfortable than in the wintertime. Sperm whale sightings are the main attraction and are almost guaranteed.

Colder Season - May until September

A pod of pilot whales
Pilot whales can dive up to 800 m deep for squid.

During the colder season, from May to September, you can spot a higher number of migrating whales; southern right whales, humpback whales, and sometimes even blue whales. Pilot whale sightings are rare in the winter. According to experts, the best time to see many species of migrating whales in Kaikoura is in the winter, from June until August.

Southern right whales
Southern right whales

However, keep in mind it is much colder - temperatures are slightly above 10°C in the winter, but it feels much colder. The vessels have indoor seating for the journey to the whales.

 

 

These are my recommended tours via GetYourGuide with 24 hours advance cancellation policy. Thx for booking via my website! With your support, I am able to provide all information first-hand. Tour prices are at no extra cost!

Crowds - Fully Booked Tours

A breaching humpback
During one of our trips, we spotted several breaching humpbacks. Fantastic!

Whale watching is a popular attraction, and booking these tours in advance is advisable, especially during the peak season in summer from December to February. Early morning trips are not always fully booked, but from 10 am onwards, the boats fill up pretty fast. However, I would book in advance regardless of the time of day to be on the safe side. In the wintertime, it is less busy and fewer boats provide whale-watching trips.

Dolphins underwater
A fantastic tour in the cold sea - to spot curious dolphins next to you.

Another excellent tour and my favourite is swimming with dolphins. These tours are fantastic for interactions with these playful cetaceans but likely to sell out quickly. Usually, they are not afraid of humans and come close. This may be the most exciting tour you have ever done. 

Weather Kaikoura

An albatross with its huge wings and a blue sky
The sky is not always that blue in NZ - an albatross joyning the boat.

Temperatures are pleasant from November to March, frequently around 20°C during the day. Nights are chilly, usually around 10°C. From May to September, the temperatures range from 15-10°C, but it feels much colder on the boat in the wind. Significant rainfall can happen throughout the year though the freezing time is the wettest from April to August. Tours get cancelled if the weather forecast is too bad or the sea too rough. The wind often increases in the afternoon, and it's rough on the boat. Be prepared if you struggle with seasickness.

3 Different Types of Whale Watching

  1. Boat: A whale-watching cruise is common and the cheapest option to spot whales in their natural environment. The price per adult is roughly NZ$ 150, and for children $ 60. The swell picks up in the afternoon. Seasickness remedies are helpful, but you get tired from them.
  2. Plane: Nowadays 30 minutes flights by small planes are offered; when they spot a whale, they circle around 150 meters/ 500 feet above. The trip is shorter, but the plane does not depend on the sea conditions, and you can see the entire whale from the aircraft, which is more thrilling than the boat. Boat trips get more often cancelled due to the rough sea. The price per person is NZ$190. 
  3. Helicopter: Also, 1 hour helicopter flights are offered at 150 meters height. It's worth it to get a drone-like view, to spot the entire whale, not only a part of it. 

6 Must-Know Kaikoura Tips


Very tasty Paua Sandwich!

  1. Paua Sandwich: Have a look for a snack stall close to the fur seal colony and try a Paua Sandwich (see the picture above). Although the black colour looks strange, it is tasty and interesting. The Paua shell is famous for its beautiful colours and is sold as a souvenir.
  2. Morning Tour: The sea is calmer in the morning, and before the afternoon breeze gets up, it's a good idea to book a morning tour. It doesn't need to be the first one, though.
  3. Sea Sickness: If you have already experienced seasickness before, be sure to take a seasickness remedy, the downside is that these pills make you a little sleepy.
  4. Tour Cancellation: Tours may get cancelled due to harsh weather conditions. Confirm your trip a day before with your tour operator.
  5. Highway: Highway 1 south of Kaikoura gets closed in poor weather conditions. Check the weather forecast and get in touch with your tour operator.
  6. Albatross Tours: New Zealand is an exceptional destination to learn about the majestic albatross. Getting close to these birds is best from Kaikoura. 

 

 

 

There are day trips available from Christchurch to Kaikoura and back just for the whale watching trip. If you are limited in time, that's a good idea. We loved to stay in Kaikoura for three reasons; First, tours can get cancelled due to poor weather; second, if there isn't any whale sighting, you get an 80 % refund, and you could book a second trip. Third there is so much more to explore in Kaikoura, like the fur seal colony or even snorkelling with dolphins. Bookmark the following link for the best accommodation deals in Kaikoura and stay here for at least two nights. 

A colony of sea lions laying on the shore in Kaikoura
Plenty of sea lions and seals in Kaikoura.

To plan your trip or explorer the Islands, we recommend the guidebook from Fodor’s. It is packed with maps, carefully curated recommendations and everything else you need to simplify your trip-planning process and make the most of your time onsite.

Best Months to Visit

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Location and Tips

Kaikoura
New Zealand
New Zealand

Kaikoura is famous for being one of the best places in the world for whale watching, situated almost 200 km north of Christchurch. It's less than three hours drive on Hwy 1. Due to the nutrient-rich waters of the nearly 3000 meters deep Kaikoura Canyon, the chance for whale sightings is almost 100 %. Take precautions if seasickness is an issue for you. Due to the boat's speed and the swell, many people suffer from seasickness; You have to stay inside the vessel as long as the ship moves forward, which can worsen it. 

A huge school of dolphins around the boat
A school of hector dolphins close to the shore.

You may see Albatrosses and other seabirds on your whale-watching trip. There are often common dolphins or huge schools with hundreds of dusky dolphins around. The boat trip takes roughly 3 hours plus the introduction. Strong winds occur frequently, and it's pretty rough on the boat. Wear a rain and windproof jacket; it gets chilly on deck.

Whale Guide for Kaikoura

Nowadays, the entire sea around New Zealand is a protected zone for whales and dolphins. 

Sperm Whales

A group of sperm whales
A small pod of sperm whales protecting a calf.
  • Sperm Whales are present throughout the year.
  • It is one of the deepest diving whales, more than 1000 meters for their primary prey, squid, fish, and even sharks.
  • They got hunted for their hight quality oil in their head; the "spermaceti organ" - where their name originates - was used to produce smokeless candles in the 19th century. The last one got killed in 1964.
  • Their brain is the largest of all animals.
  • Males get much bigger than females - the record is more than 16 meters/ 52 feet long. Therefore, they are the longest-toothed whales of all. 
  • Females are giving birth to one calf at a time.
  • Their lifespan ranges between 60 and 70 years.

Humpback Whales

Two humpback whales one showing the fluke before diving
Two bigger humpbacks
  • Humpback Whales migrate from the Antarctic to warm tropical waters like Tonga for mating and giving birth during the winter from May to October. That means they pass Kaikoura between May and October. Tonga is also one of the view spots in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants. 
  • Migration of up to 16.000 miles - 26.000 km
  • The average lifespan is around 50 years
  • Length of 14 up to 19 meters - 46 up to 68 feet
  • They weigh 25-30 tons on average and up to 40 tons for some big male individuals.
  • Newborn calves weigh one ton.
  • Baleen whales are filter feeders - feeding on small fish like sardines and herrings, krill, plankton.
  • The Good News humpback numbers recover almost back to the pre-whaling level.

Southern Right Whales

A mum and his calf
Much better to spot than others.
  • Southern Right Whales are endangered because they were hunted until the 60s. They are slow breeders. Therefore, they can't recover fast from hunting in the past.
  • They were named southern because they occur in warmer south oceans only.
  • They have paddle-shaped flippers instead of a dorsal fin.
  • It's a baleen whale feeding mainly on krill.
  • Lifespan up to 70 years
  • Size: 13-17 m long/ 43-56 feet
  • They are frequent sightings from April to October.

Blue Whales

The fluke of a blue whale
The majestic fluke before diving.
  • Blue Whales are the most giant animals on our planet, up to almost 30 meters/ 98 feet long.
  • Also, their weight of up to 200 tons is a record high.
  • Blue whales are baleen whales - the baleens are attached to the upper jaw.
  • They feed mainly on krill.
  • It's an endangered species and rare to spot them, but definitely magical. I have spotted one in my life so far. 

Dolphin Guide for Kaikoura

Although called whales, orcas and pilot whales belong to the dolphin family.

Orcas - Killer Whales

Orca close to the boat
A younger orca close to our boat.
  • The orca is the largest family member of the dolphin and is highly intelligent.
  • Living in pods with up to 40 members.
  • The orca has a white spot behind the eye.
  • To distinguish males and females is easy by their fins—males: high, sword-shaped dorsal fin, and females: curved.
  • They can get up to 10 meters/ 33 feet long and weigh 10 tons.
  • Lifespan males: 30-50 years and females: 50-80 years.
  • Sexual maturity after age 13 with the reproduction rate every 3-12 years.
  • Hunting with different techniques depending on their vicinity.
  • They can adapt very well to any water temperature close to the equator or the North and South Pole.
  • Occasionally spotted from October to April.

Pilot Whales

A group of pilot whales resting on the surface of the sea.
Usually, pilot whales occur in schools.
  • Pilot Whales are very social - they live and migrate in huge schools.
  • They are the second biggest in the dolphin family.
  • Lifespan of up to 60 years
  • Adult size 4-8 m/ 13-26 feet – females are smaller - newborn max. 2 m/6.5 feet
  • Long-finned pilot whales are larger than short-finned pilot whales.
  • Weight up to 4 tons
  • Diving deep up to 800 m for squid for roughly 20 minutes, usually at night.
  • They are night-active, resting during the day on the surface, and therefore frequently spotted.
  • Especially in New Zealand, whale stranding occurs frequently, but it is still unclear what it causes. The group follows the leader without any hesitation, and if they are standing, dehydration causes their death.

Dusky Dolphins

A jumping dusky dolphin far above the surface of the sea
Dusky dolphins are smaller dolphins.
  • A high chance to spot the acrobatic dusky dolphins in schools of several hundred in Kaikoura throughout the year.
  • Also, they occur in the southern hemisphere only.
  • Size up to 2 m/6.5 feet - males are slightly larger.
  • They primarily feed on small fish, squid, and anchovies.
  • Dusky females give birth every few years.
  • Lifespan 30 plus years.
  • If you want to swim with dusky dolphins, booking the tour in advance during the peak season at least one week before is advisable. We requested the tour just five days in advance, but they were fully booked.
 

 

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Created by
Micha Herber-Bleich
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I am always open, curious about new…