Close Encounters in Kaikoura
Ask most Kiwis “what’s there to do in Kaikoura?” and they will likely say “go on a whale watching or dolphin tour” for which the town is deservedly famous. What’s not so well known is that it is also one of the few places in the world to offer dedicated albatross tours through local tourism operator, ‘Encounter Kaikoura’.
Dennis Buurman, general manager and partner in Encounter Kaikoura, says the Albatross Encounter tours came about thanks to the efforts of a local commercial fisherman who now works for them as a skipper and tour guide.
“Gary Melville’s a seabird legend, well known here and overseas for his knowledge and expertise about seabirds which he gained from years at sea,” says Dennis. “He got us interested in running the tours, showing us that we have a wonderful seabird resource on our door step.”
Dennis says that Kaikoura’s proximity to a large variety of seabirds has seen the town become internationally known as a destination centre for seabirds. “We’re lucky to have the Kaikoura Canyon (a deep sea trench) so close to the coast. Its currents bring in lots of nutrients, making it food rich and very attractive to all sea life including large marine mammals like whales and dolphins and seabirds.
Ask Dennis to list the seabirds regularly seen at Kaikoura and it’s pretty impressive. In the albatross range alone the list includes the popular wandering albatross species, including the Gibson’s and Antipodean, the Royal albatrosses including the Northern Royal and Southern Royal, as well as the mollymawks including the white-capped, Buller’s, Salvin’s and Black-browed albatrosses.
“Every now and then we’ll get to spot a Chatham Island albatross, coming from their breeding grounds, and very occasionally the distinctive Yellow-nosed albatross.
“It’s a real treat for people to see albatrosses close up. While some of the more dedicated bird watchers are here to tick off as many species as they can, most people just love watching these magnificent birds with their large wing spans, soaring above our seas,” says Dennis.
The Encounter team have a soft spot for one particular seabird that’s been ‘visiting’ the area for more than 20 years. It’s a female Gibson’s albatross that’s known by her banded name of Orange 512. “Quite a few of the larger albatross are tagged by researchers with coloured numbered bands as part of ongoing research and Orange 512 makes regular visits to our coast. Dennis says they first encountered her while out on the Dolphin Encounter tours in the early 1990s, and in a recent incident a year ago, a local charter operator called to ask for help in removing an albatross caught in discarded recreational fishing line from a fishing rod. “As it turned out, it was our favourite, 512.”
“They brought her in and we were able to untangle the bird from the line and Gary took her out in the boat and safely released her. We have seen her many times since that lucky escape and it is good to know she is still safe and well. “We’ve just been informed by researchers, Kath Walker and Graeme Elliot, that they located her at her breeding site on the Auckland Islands in the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic. They hadn’t seen her on land since 2007 so they were extremely happy to locate her again.” According to Kath she was courting with a male seven years younger than her. “We’re hoping to see her for many more years, along with her offspring,” says Dennis.
While one of the main at-sea risks for many seabirds is being caught during fishing, Dennis says there are other threats as well. These are land-based and include predators, like rats, stoats, cats and wild pigs attacking the nests at the breeding sites. In the case of albatrosses, one of the biggest threats is changes driven by climate change, including the effect on their food. “New Zealand is known as the seabird capital of the world and we’re privileged here in Kaikoura to see so many of them up close, but we need to look after them as a number of them are threatened species,” says Dennis.
For more information on Albatross Encounter Kaikoura call 0800 733 365 or https://www.albatrossencounter.co.nz/discover-kaikoura/