Kaikoura | NZ Adventure

Oct. 21 and 22, 2016

"They're rather ungainly, aren't they?" my new British friend remarked, pointing his camera at a handful of seals flopping down the rocky beach. We were the only two people on the beach before dawn, and we had been about to walk back to our cars when I spotted the seals congregated behind some rocks, lit in the glow of the rising sun. We watched as, one by one, they wiggled off the rocks and body-rolled their way to the water. 

"Ungainly" was a fitting description. Out of the water, the seals looked like furry tootsie rolls, lounging on the rocks, their neckless, blubbery bodies barely tapering into noses. In the waves, they were slightly more graceful. Later that day, Mel and I watched groups of seals chase one another through the waves, sliding and rolling through the water. They would disappear near the shoreline and resurface past the breakers—farther out than you thought they could get that quickly.

Located on a peninsula about two hours north of Christchurch, Kaikoura was originally established as a whaling settlement. There are a few remnants of that time left—the bright pink Fyffe House built on a foundation of whale bones, a stone chimney left standing in a field long after the house built around it burned down. People still come to Kaikoura to spot whales—though not to harpoon them anymore—and to visit the seal colonies. 

I loved Kaikoura immediately. The drive into town twists up the rugged coastline between the mountains and the ocean. The road runs in and out of tunnels, beside train tracks carved into the mountainside. I drove up and down that road three times—on the way to Kaikoura, back to Christchurch, and then on a bus to Picton after Mel flew out. 

A few weeks after Mel and I visited, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Kaikoura. I was in Australia by that point, and it was bizarre to watch the news reports. Some of the tunnels on the coastal highway caved in. The roads cracked. A landslide destroyed some of the seal habitats. 

Most of the seals slipped out to sea. After the earthquake, people spotted them hauling themselves out of the water at different points along the coast, looking slightly lost as they flopped their way to the rocks.