One of the most mesmerising things to experience in New Zealand is Kaikoura’s whale watching season. Every year, these wondrous creatures journey to this special part of the world to the delight of locals and visitors alike. As fans ourselves, we thought we’d put together this little guide so you can get the most out of your own whale watching adventure in Kaikoura. 

Where is Kaikoura?

Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. With a population of just over 2,400 people, it’s officially part of the Canterbury region and is 180km north of Christchurch. If you happen to be picking up your Christchurch rental car from us (we hope you are) it’ll take you about 2 ½ hours to drive there via State Highway 1.

What whales are in Kaikoura?

The great thing about Kaikoura is that it is visited by not just one species of whale, but many. It’s partly why Kaikoura has gained such a strong reputation for whale watching as different species will be present at different times of the year.

The main species of whale that Kaikoura is known for, however, has to be the Sperm Whale. Kaikoura is the place Sperm Whales call home and is one of the few areas in the world where they can be easily seen by people. As the largest toothed whale alive today, they can grow to a size in excess of 15 metres, making them an incredible sight when seen in person.

Other species of whale that drop in on Kaikoura that you may see on a whale watching tour include the Beaked Whale, Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Humpback Whale, Long Finned Pilot Whale, Minke Whale, Orca, Pygmy Sperm Whale, Southern Right Whale and more.

Why do whales come to Kaikoura?

The curious-minded among you will probably be wondering what makes Kaikoura so special when it comes to whales and why so many of them, journey so far to get there.

The answer lies deep below the water’s surface to its unique submarine landscape called the Kaikoura Canyon. The canyon that has forged over time is one that drops quickly to depths of 3km along the coastline. This geographical feature, combined with the warm and cold currents that meet in this area (lifting nutrients from the seabed) enables a wide and diverse range of marine life to flourish.

This then creates a rich source of food for the likes of Sperm Whale, as well as the other species of whales mentioned above, to thrive on. Male Sperm Whales are especially fond of this area as the plentiful supply of food allows them to grow sufficiently so that they become more appealing and ultimately successful when it comes time for mating season.

Can you see whales from the shore in Kaikoura?

The Kaikoura Canyon is located just 800m off the coast of Kaikoura so on a clear day, if the conditions are just right, you might just be able to spot a few whales in the distance from land. 

However, we 100% recommend the wonderful experience of seeing the whales up close on the catamarans run by the awesome team at Whale Watch Kaikoura. Whale Watch Kaikoura is one of the top-rated attractions in the country with a near-perfect 95% success rate when it comes to whale sightings on their tours. 

Their unmatched knowledge of the waters and marine life in Kaikoura is part of what makes their tours so successful though they freely admit that the whales themselves are the real stars. Designed for whale watching, their catamarans are great whale watching vessels and have great spots for viewing both inside and out and there are some amazing photos on their Instagram page from passengers which are nothing short of inspiring.

If you’ve gone to all the trouble to plan a trip to see the whales in Kaikoura then you really should reward yourself by doing so from the best seat in the house. The expert commentary you’ll get as part of the tour also enriches the experience to another level.

GO Rentals customers get a 10% discount using their GO Play cards at Whale Watch Kaikoura.

What is the best time of day to see whales?

Generally speaking, the best time of day to see whales is in the morning. This is mostly because the best viewing conditions take place then as the mornings usually have calmer sea and weather conditions.

Whale Watch Kaikoura run tours most mornings on every day of the week except Wednesdays but do operate 7 days a week during school holidays. Bookings in advance are essential for these tours as they are very popular.

Tours can be cancelled if the weather and sea conditions are looking too rough but you’ll get a 100% refund if that’s the case.

When is the best time of year to see whales in Kaikoura?

Part of what makes Kaikoura so great for whale watching is that it is something you can literally do all year round. As mentioned earlier, Sperm Whales naturally call Kaikoura their home so are always present somewhere in the waters of the region. It’s why Whale Watch Kaikoura are able to maintain its 95% strike rate when it comes to whale sightings on their tours. An encounter with the giant sperm whale is something you will never forget and that’s what makes Kaikoura such a special place for Kiwis and overseas visitors alike.

All that being said, there are a few other factors to consider that may influence your decision. If, for instance, you’d prefer to do your whale watching experience in slightly warmer weather, you would probably want to aim for a visit during the summer months which happen to be December-February in New Zealand. The Autumn months (March-May) are also very comfortable with average temperatures between 16°C – 21°C.

However, if you don’t mind slightly cooler temperatures, visits between the months of June-August will give you the chance to see the other species of migrating whales that visit the area. This includes Beaked Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, Pilot Whales, Orcas and more that we talked about earlier. This is an amazing bonus for some people and an opportunity that is too good to pass up.

If you’re into photography, a visit during the winter will also likely mean the horizons in your shots will be blessed with the snow-capped peaks of the nearby mountains too (another carrot to dangle for a winter trip). 

Are there other things to do in Kaikoura?

If you’re worried that Kaikoura is a one-trick pony (or whale) when it comes to things to do, you shouldn’t be, as there is plenty of other things on offer for visitors during any stay. We’ve quickly included five great examples below to complete your itinerary for a dream holiday in Kaikoura.

1. Dolphin Encounters

Whales aren’t the only amazing creatures you can see in Kaikoura. You can also see dolphins during your visit! On top of that, the good people at Dolphin Encounters, also give you the chance to swim with them too in their natural environment. “Magical” is the word that is often used to describe this and you’ll find yourself surely among those who do too. The dusky dolphins that are found in and around Kaikoura are known to be one of the most interactive and acrobatic species of dolphin. The opportunity to see whales and dolphins is one of the reasons why Kaikoura is such a popular tourist destination.

GO Rentals customers get a 10% discount using their GO Play cards at Dolphin Encounters.

2. Albatross Encounters

As well as abundant marine life, you’ll also find plenty of birdlife in the region too. Albatross are a big draw for the area – among the largest flighted birds in the world. Albatross Encounters run boat tours that take you out to see these magnificent seabirds and more. It’s a photographer’s delight giving you the chance to capture them in flight, diving spectacularly into the waters and catching fish to feed on. 

There are a number of species of albatross that you may see on your trip including the great albatross, lesser albatross and wandering albatross. Other seabirds you may see on your trip include shearwaters and petrels.

GO Rentals customers get a 10% discount using their GO Play cards at Albatross Encounters.

3. Kaikoura Kayaks


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by #kaikourakayaks (@kaikourakayaks)

Kayaking is a popular recreational pursuit in New Zealand and kayaking in Kaikoura is about as ‘Kiwi’ an experience as you can get. Kaikoura Kayaks are an eco-friendly operator that offers a number of different expeditions that include private and family tour options. Bird and marine life are a big part of their experience as well, so much so, that they offer a 100% guarantee for New Zealand Fur Seal sightings!

GO Rentals customers get a 10% discount using their GO Play cards at Kaikoura Kayaks.

4. Seal Swim

Speaking of seals, if you want an even more intimate experience you can choose to swim with them via Seal Swim Kaikoura. This amazing encounter is offered as a land-based and a boat-based snorkelling adventure, both tours giving you the chance to see New Zealand Fur Seals in their natural marine environment. As a family-owned business in operation for over 30 years, they’re experts in their field and were named one of the Top 10 Marine Encounters in the world by Lonely Planet.

GO Rentals customers get a 10% discount using their GO Play cards at Seal Swim.

5. Dining on Crayfish

Last but not least, the one thing you have to try when you go to Kaikoura is the local crayfish. This delicacy that you ordinarily find in the finest restaurants in the world is found in abundance in Kaikoura. 

Sound too good to be true? 

Well, you might be convinced by the knowledge that “Kaikoura” in Maori actually means “Eat Crayfish”. Thankfully, things haven’t changed in the centuries since it was named and you’ll be able to find plenty of places to try it while you’re there.

Make your next trip a Kaikoura whale watching trip!

As you can see, a Kaikoura whale watching trip has so much to offer no matter what time of year you happen to visit. It’s a great example of a wonderful little town that has made the most out of its natural features with locals doing what they do best.

There are more great towns like this up and down the east coast of the South Island and if you’ve enjoyed this read, why not check out our list of things to do in Oamaru and Akaroa too.