Kia ora Kaikoura: sleepy seals, spectacular seabirds and doting dotterels

We’re based in Kaikoura for the summer, and it’s probably one of the most scenic places on the planet. Snow-capped mountains descend steeply through lush native forest right down to the turquoise waters of the Pacific. The town sits on a lowland plain surrounded by green farmland, at the base of a rugged peninsular with pebbly beaches, rocky shorelines and dramatic cliffs. Landscape photography is hard to resist.

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On arrival in Kaikoura, one of the first things we noticed were all the big, fat, hairy bodies lying on the beach. Don’t worry, we’re not being unkind about the lovely locals – we’d found ourselves in the middle of a seal colony.

IMG_5633Around the peninsula, the NZ Fur Seals are everywhere. Hauled out on rocks, lolling on the tide line, snoozing in the shade under the bushes. The more energetic pups may be seen swimming in rock pools, but most of the time they are all sleeping.

And when they’re not asleep, they’re doing this:

Yaaaawn - life on land is a lazy one for seals

Yaaaawn – life on land is a lazy one for NZ Fur Seals

The seals are so sleepy because they spend days at a time out at sea, hunting for squid, octopus and fish, before they return to land for a well-earned kip. But getting enough rest can be tricky when there are a lot of curious visitors around. People are required to keep at least 10m away from any seal (or 20m anywhere else in NZ), to avoid disturbing their rest, but also for safety – seals can deliver a powerful bite and carry some very nasty bacteria. And like their Aussie mates, they’re quite capable of showing who’s boss on the beach if you get on their nerves, so best to always keep a respectful distance.

People must keep 10m away from the seals, but it can be difficult when they block the footpath! Here at Point Kean, the toilets have gates to stop the seals from entering.

People must keep 10m away from the seals, but it can be difficult when they block the footpath! Here at Point Kean, the toilets have gates to stop the seals from entering.

For birders, the main attraction of Kaikoura is undoubtedly the awesome array of seabirds that can be found just offshore. In fact, this place is world renowned for the diversity of species and their proximity to land. With just a quick boat trip you can be bobbing around amid a feeding frenzy of albatrosses and petrels, and still within sight of Kaikoura’s beautiful mountains. Local tour operator Albatross Encounter offer excellent trips to see this spectacle daily, using fragrant fish liver to attract the birds, or simply pulling up next to an obliging fishing boat.

Albatrosses and giant petrels queuing for scraps around a fishing boat. Almost nowhere else can this variety of pelagic species be seen so easily.

Albatrosses and giant petrels queuing for scraps around a fishing boat. Almost nowhere else can this variety of pelagic species be seen so easily.

Incoming Southern Royal Albatross, one of the world's largest seabirds.

Incoming Southern Royal Albatross, one of the world’s largest seabirds.

Nellies (Giant Petrels) have terrible table manners.

Nellies (Giant Petrels) squabbling over scraps


As well as boasting a incredible variety of seabirds visiting local waters (including the recent addition of Grey-headed Albatross to the list, which one half of the Stickybeak team was lucky enough to spot), Kaikoura also has its very own endemic-breeding seabird: Hutton’s Shearwater.

Hutton's Shearwaters have recently returned to Kaikoura waters after spending the winter around Australia, and can be seen congregating in large feeding flocks offshore.

Hutton’s Shearwaters have recently returned to Kaikoura waters after spending the winter around Australia, and can be seen congregating in large feeding flocks offshore.

Kaikoura's endemic seabird: Hutton's Shearwater

Kaikoura’s endemic seabird: Hutton’s Shearwater

Remarkably, these are birds of the mountains as well as of the ocean. Hutton’s Shearwaters have the distinction of being the world’s highest-nesting seabird, making their burrows over 1000m high in the Kaikoura mountains. During the day they forage at sea and can often be seen easily (with binoculars) close in to shore, sometimes resting in huge rafts on the water’s surface.


One other bird we didn’t have too go far to notice is the Banded Dotterel, which are currently nesting on the pebbly beaches around town. This species is unique for its east-west migration (though this is mainly seen in the populations breeding in South Island’s alpine riverbeds), and until this year we’d only seen them on their winter holidays to eastern Australia. So we were excited to see these birds here during their breeding season and observed several pairs fiercely guarding their nests amid tide-line debris.

Brooding Banded Dotterel - probably a male.

Brooding Banded Dotterel – probably a male.

We couldn't resist taking a very brief peep at the nest, which held a clutch of three beautifully patterned eggs.

We couldn’t resist taking a very brief peep at the ‘nest’, which held a clutch of three beautifully patterned eggs.


So it’s clear there is much to see around Kaikoura, even if you only visit for a day. With a bit longer there is much more to explore, and that’s what we hope to do over the next few months.

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