Whales, dolphins, and albatross, all in a morning's effort

Editor's note: SmarterTravel.com Associate Editor Molly Feltner recently returned from New Zealand and is sharing her experiences in the "Adventure Travel Capital of the World."

Everywhere I went in New Zealand I was surprised by how many accessible activity options the Kiwis can pack into even the smallest towns. For the most part, there's no need to book things more than a day or so in advance and, if you're short on time like me, you can often fit several exciting excursions into one day. I put that theory to the test on a visit to Kaikoura, a town of about 4,000 people on the northeastern coast of the South Island that's well known for its marine life. In the span of one day and a morning, I fit in a whale watch, a wine tour, a Maori tour, a horse trek, and a swim with wild seals. Whew.

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First up, my reason for coming to Kaikoura in the first place: the whales. Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world you can see sperm whales year-round. Sperm whales are the kind of toothy, box-headed whales that you'll often see on scrimshaw art. They come to Kaikoura because, within a kilometer offshore, the Hikurangi Trench drops off more than 6,500 feet, creating an ideal environment for creatures like the giant squid, which the whales eat. As I found out, all the whales in the area are young males who've been kicked out of their family pods in the South Pacific by the dominant females. They're not allowed to return until they're big and mature enough for the females to consider them worthy. Intelligent creatures indeed.

I went out to see the whales with Whale Watch Kaikoura, a Maori-owned company that operates the only boat-based whale-watching outfit in the area (you can also view them by helicopter or light plane). The company runs a very efficient fleet, sending out six or more trips per day (in peak season) in high-speed catamarans that can reach the whales in minutes, not hours. They use sonar to pick the whales' squeaks and clicks and predict where they will surface.

I saw two sperm whales on my trip (about average), plus several wandering albatross and a pod of playful dusky dolphins. We got close enough for me to get some great shots of the whales diving and the dolphins playing around the stern of the ship.

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