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11 Things to KNOW Before Going Whale Watching in Kaikoura +My Top Tips

11 Things to KNOW Before Going Whale Watching in Kaikoura +My Top Tips

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Whale watching is a common tour in many coastal areas, but if you want the best, Kaikoura is the place to be! 

Kaikoura is one of the top places in New Zealand for whale watching and happens to be one of the country’s premier coastal destinations for all tourists to visit. Besides whale watching, there are so many fun things to do in Kaikoura that I visit here whenever I get a chance. It is one of my favorite places to stop on a road trip or the perfect romantic getaway with my partner!

This northernmost district is in New Zealand’s Canterbury region and is close to both Christchurch and Wellington (via a short ferry trip across the pond). Kaikoura is incredibly scenic, so its ability to access two of the country’s major cities in just 2-3 hours is quite impressive. This will also make it easier for you to visit the area for a whale-watching experience.  

Whether you want to add whale watching to your coastal trip or plan to make this the focus of your adventure, there are a few things to know before you take the water (or the sky- there’s even a helicopter tour!). Here’s every you NEED to know before booking a whale-watching tour in Kaikoura.

Don’t have time to read the full article? Kaikoura is the ultimate whale-watching destination in New Zealand! You can take this classic boat whale-watching tour and have an amazing time, or kick your experience up a notch by kayaking with whales or even taking a helicopter whale-watching tour to see them from above!

1. About the whales you can see on a tour from Kaikoura  

A humpback whale swims along the surface of the water in Kaikoura
So cool!
A humpback whale tail breaches in Kaikoura, NZ
It’s easy to tell the humpback whale by its tail!

You’re most likely to see sperm whales, the primary residents of the area, when you go on a whale-watching tour in Kaikoura. These whales are present year-round, making them the easiest species to spot. 

That’s not to say that these are the only creatures you’ll see! 

From December to March, you’ll see Orcas (Killer whales), and June through July is a great time to spot Humpback whales.  

If you’re a fan of dolphins, you can catch a glimpse of several species almost daily, on top of whichever species of whale is around during a given season.  

There are many other species of whales around, like the Southern Right whales, Minke whales, Long-Finned Pilot whales, and more. You can expect to see multiple species during your visit and be blown away by New Zealand’s unique wildlife!

The Sperm whale is indisputably the star of the show, though! 

2. Why are there so many whales in Kaikoura? 

A sperm whales dives below the surface in Kaikoura, New Zealand
A sperm whale!

Kaikoura has unusual marine landscapes which cause whales to gravitate toward the area. There are several very deep underwater canyons nearby, where the continental shelf drops off, and this causes currents to be a bit different in this part of the ocean. 

This allows visitors to often see multiple whales at once, where they aren’t guaranteed to see any on a tour in a different part of the world.  

Whales mainly come to the area because of the unique environment and its ability to sustain them.  

A cold current from the south intersects with a warm current from the north, causing nutrients from deep in the ocean to be brought closer to the surface. Not only does this sustain smaller sea life, but the benefits go up the food chain to larger sea creatures like sharks, dolphins, and whales. 

This area is not only unique but sustains sea life particularly well, which is good for whales and, of course, anyone who wants to see whales up close on a tour! 

3. When is whale watching season in Kaikoura?  

A humpback whale breaches the water in Kaikoura, NZ
Seeing them breach is unreal!

Luckily, whale watching is a year-round experience in Kaikoura and one of the best things you can do in New Zealand!

While sperm whales are a constant throughout the year, the range of species that migrate to this region annually is wide enough that you have the opportunity to see something new each time you visit.  

Different sources will tell you different things about the best time of year to whale watch. It comes down to your personal preference, though. 

So, what is the best time to go whale watching, then? 

4. What is the best month to go whale watching in Kaikoura?  

Dolphins swim past a whale watching boat in Kaikoura, NZ
There is so much wildlife in Kaikoura!

If you prefer warmer weather, New Zealand will be best to visit from October to March as the summer months take over. You are also most likely to see pods of 6-12 orcas during this time of year, from December onward, if that is a particular species you hope to see. 

June to August is said to be one of the peak migratory times for whales to come to the area, so those winter months in New Zealand offer a unique experience of their own. (Don’t forget that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, so its seasons are opposite of North America and Europe.) 

Most species of whales give birth during the winter months, so you have the best chance of seeing baby whales during the migratory period. In fact, mother whales tend to give birth during migration, as they make their way to the warmer waters of a place like New Zealand. Their goal is to leave behind the colder waters that they inhabit during some of the summer months.  

However, this is dependent on each individual species, to a degree.  

It seems that the largest volume of whales can be seen near Kaikoura during the winter migratory period, and this is when you are most likely to see whales breaching or jumping up out of the water.  

Whales breach more often when there are other whales around, so as different pods make their way back to Kaikoura, you’ll have a better chance of seeing a show. 

You don’t have to worry about coming to New Zealand and missing out on the whales altogether, though, since sperm whales are found in the waters of Kaikoura all year round! 

5. What time of day is best for whale watching in Kaikoura?  

Sperm Whale tale breaches the water in Kaikoura, NZ
A sperm whale tail!

The best time of day to go whale watching also depends more on your preference and on available tour times than anything.  

Whales are mostly active at night, so picking a time of day when you might see more activity is not an easy feat.  

Since this is the case, it is best to look at other factors that might play into your decision. 

Viewing conditions in the morning tend to be at their best, so this is a good option for anyone wanting to hit the ground running and get the most out of the tour. I also have to mention that you’ll avoid the heat of the day which, especially in the summer, can be quite a relief. 

6. What are the best whale-watching tours in Kaikoura?  

To help remove some of the work you’ll have to do when it comes to planning an actual tour, I’ve listed some of my favorite recommendations for you.  

Whether you are looking to join a larger boat tour, see whales from the sky, or get up close and personal by kayaking, there is a tour that will fit your needs! 

Whale Watching Tour by Boat from Kaikoura  

A whale swims in front on a boat as people look on in Kaikoura, NZ
You can get pretty close if the whales are curious!

Picture this: you get to explore the deep waters off Kaikoura by boat, as you learn about the Māori history and connections to the whales that you will see up close. Not to mention the new vantage point you’ll get from out on the water, – you’ll get to appreciate the mountains and rugged coastline of the town you’re staying in. 

If you’re staying in Kaikoura, this particular tour is a perfect choice! It leaves from Kaikoura and operates all year round. In fact, this highly-rated tour is one of the best things to do in Kaikoura!

You can expect about 2.5 of exploration aboard a modern catamaran, led by a local guide who will provide live commentary about the wildlife you are seeing.  

For $169 NZD, the bus ride to and from the marina is included, and the company guarantees an 80% refund if you don’t see any whales on your trip – that is how confident they are that you will see these creatures! 

The only things that aren’t included are snacks and drinks, but you can enjoy one of the many cafes and restaurants on land before or after your tour. The seafood is amazing, as you might expect! 

Since this is such a popular tour, you should book online here in advance with FREE cancellation to secure your place!

Whale Watching Tour by Boat from Christchurch (to Kaikoura)  

A whale breaches while a boat looks on in Kaikoura, NZ
Even if you’re in Christchurch, don’t miss this chance to see whales!

Ever wanted to combine whale watching and wine? Well, now you can! 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Kaikoura is conveniently located very near some of New Zealand’s major cities.  

If you’ve chosen to stay in Christchurch for your trip but are still itching to get up north to Kaikoura for a tour, this whale-watching day tour is probably the best thing for you! Kaikoura is a 2.5-hour drive, so it’s definitely doable in a day trip from Christchurch.

Your first stop will be the highlight of the tour- whale watching! I love that this tour is on a catamaran boat, which is much more stable for those who might get seasick. The onboard commentary will teach you all about Kaikoura’s history and all about the whales you’re seeing. You will also get an up-close look at a fur seal colony, which is iconically New Zealand!

After your whale watching, you’ll stop for lunch, then off to my favorite activity- wine tasting! The region is not only known for its whales but also for its wine. In fact, North Canterbury is one of New Zealand’s best wine regions and is on the way to Kaikoura from Christchurch. This tour is the perfect pairing (no pun intended) of two important parts of northern New Zealand. 

You will spend 11 hours on this tour between the drive time, the whale-watching experience, and a wine tasting in North Canterbury. This tour is $350 NZD excluding lunch or $385 NZD including lunch. It’s one of the best tours from Christchurch – talk about an all-inclusive experience!  

This tour times everything very well so that you get the most out of your day! You can book this whale-watching tour from Christchurch online here.

Related Read: You can easily add Kaikoura to your South Island road trip itinerary. Just rent a car or campervan in Christchurch you’re good to go!

banner asking people to click to join the Queenstown Diary Facebook Group

Wildlife Sea Kayaking Tour  

Two people kayaking in Kaikoura, NZ
Photo credit: Kaikoura Kayaks

Okay, so – let’s say you are extra adventurous and want to get as close to the whales as you can. For example, you might even want to be in the water with them (sounds crazy, I know!). 

You can take this wildlife sea kayaking tour to do just that! At just $140 NZD, you’ll have a packed 3.5 hours of paddling with a certified guide, seeing tons of wildlife, and enjoying private transportation to and from the site in Kaikoura.  

You’ll also see Kaikoura’s unspoiled coastline in a marine reserve because this tour is led by the only sea kayak operator that holds a marine mammal permit. 

If you don’t have any prior kayak experience, don’t worry! You don’t need any for this tour, and your guides are there to help you out as needed.  

I love kayaking, so I might be biased, but this tour was a great addition to the larger, more expensive, tours that saw marine life in other ways. It also caps at 22 guests, so that you aren’t in the middle of a huge cluster of people and can truly enjoy the scenery. 

You can book this kayaking whale-watching tour online here!

Whale Watching Flight in Kaikoura  

A whale as seen from a Wings Over Whales tour in Kaikoura
Photo credit: Wings over Whales

Seeing the whales up close is incredible, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to see them swimming and breaching from above? Find out with this whale-watching flight, which gives you a very unique way to see the whales of Kaikoura! 

Maybe you love the idea of seeing whales, but don’t love the idea of being on the water for a prolonged period. Perhaps you get seasick and would love to avoid the water. That’s okay! No matter your reasoning for wanting to whale watch in another way, you won’t be disappointed. 

Spend about 30 minutes airborne in a safe, high-winged passenger plane with a max capacity of 7 guests. Not only will you see the whales, but you’ll also get an unparalleled view of Kaikoura’s mountains and landscape beyond the water. 

Your personalized guide will tell you all about the wildlife and geography of the region, and you’ll even be able to get picked up from the town center so that you don’t have to figure out how to get to the airport on your own. This flight allows you to see whales, dolphins, and possibly other marine life on any given day.  

Any time I have taken a scenic flight, I’ve always thought it was worth the cost- the views are simply incredible. And for such a unique scenic fight, this tour can’t be missed!

For $225 NZD, your transportation, flight, a snack and drink bar, terminal facilities, and even a children’s play area at the airport are included! You should book this whale-watching flight in Kaikoura in advance here to avoid missing out.

Kaikoura Helicopters Classic Whale Watch  

A whale as seen from a tour with Kaikoura Helicopters
Photo credit: Kaikoura Helicopters

Do you love the idea of whale watching from the air, but also find yourself intrigued by the idea of a helicopter ride? Perfect! This helicopter whale-watching tour combines both of those things.  

For $330 NZD, your tour includes a scenic helicopter ride with 30 minutes in the air, a view from above of Kaikoura’s deep-sea canyon that helps to draw the whales to the area, and a headset that allows you to ask questions and hear commentary.  

I recommend bringing close-toed shoes and a jacket because it will get pretty chilly up there in the helicopter.  

The beachfront helipad that you take off from is close to public transportation, which helps to make this tour accessible. You’ll enjoy incredible views of the rugged coast and the water below, as you scan for whales, dolphins, seals, and probably some boat tours down below! 

You can book this helicopter tour online in advance here!

Related Read: If you love scenic flights, New Zealand is your place to be! From the stunning Southern Alps and glaciers to incredible stretches of beaches, a helicopter tour in New Zealand will be an unforgettable experience.

7. Are Kaikoura whale watching tours eco-friendly?  

The tail of a sperm whale in Kaikoura, NZ
The tours follow strict guidelines!

When we go on tours, we like to find out what we can about their impact on the environment. As it turns out, Whale Watch Kaikoura is a world leader in eco-friendly, sustainable tourism. The tour company is recognized globally for its efforts to maintain responsible tourism while contributing in a positive way to the community.  

Another of the tours, Kaikoura Helicopter, is also sustainable, even as it utilizes air travel. The company won a Qualmark GOLD award in 2021 for Sustainable Tourism Business, marking it one of the best tourism businesses in New Zealand. Wings Over Whales, the flight tour, won the same award in 2022. 

All the companies we are familiar with note that the entire community of Kaikoura is a Sustainable Certified Community through the international Green Globe program. The program derives from EarthCheck, the leader in certification, consultation, and advisory for sustainable tourism.  

They were very notably the first community in the Southern Hemisphere to receive the Platinum Award from EarthCheck. 

What does all this mean? It means that Kaikoura is a rather sustainable community, and all of its tours incorporate eco-friendly practices! 

So, you can watch some whales while knowing that you have actively chosen to support a community that cares for its environment.  

8. Can you see other wildlife on a whale watching tour in Kaikoura?  

A dolphin in the waters of New Zealand's South Island
Dolphins are common to see!

Whales are not the only incredible marine life you can expect to see in Kaikoura! 

You are likely to see several dolphin species mixed in with all of the whales in the area, which is rather exciting. Some tours boast this possibility while others like to keep it quiet – it may be better to be happily surprised by seeing dolphins than disappointed if you don’t get to see any on your specific tour. 

There is also a chance that your tour will pass by some seal colonies, adding to the experience of seeing Kaikoura’s marine life! 

9. Are whale watching tours suitable for kids?  

A whale tale breaches the water in the bay around Kaikoura, NZ a seen on a whale watching tour.
Kids love it!

You might wonder how kid-friendly these tours are, and I’d say that they are a great activity for the whole family to enjoy together.  

Children of a certain age might get a little antsy, making a smaller tour a better fit to help keep them from being overstimulated by the animals, all the people, and the motion of the boat. Perhaps a private tour is even the way to go if you’d like to have a more personalized experience that caters to your needs.  

Some tours have age restrictions like this tour with Whale Watch Kaikoura, which allows kids ages 3 and up to come on their boats. Other tours allow all toddlers, and even babies, so make sure to confirm whether your tour company has an age restriction in place. 

Overall, though, the kids that I saw on our tours just seemed totally wrapped up in spotting the whales and looked like they were having tons of fun! 

10. What should you wear/bring whale watching in Kaikoura?  

Humpback whale tail
These creatures are huge!

One of the most important parts of enjoying your whale-watching experience is making sure that you are comfortable and well-prepared.  

Comfy shoes- You’ll want comfortable shoes that you can stand up and walk around the boat with; you don’t want to miss out on any sights because your feet hurt or have blisters.  

Sunscreen- Regardless of the time of year that you are visiting Kaikoura, you’ll want to bring some sunscreen – bonus points if it is reef-safe! Since you will be outdoors while on your tour, you’ll want to protect your skin. A hat is always a good idea, too, though you might want to make sure that it fits well or has an adjustable string because the wind can be a little finicky.  

Wear layers- On that note, the morning breeze can be cold, and you’ll want a light sweater with you if you have a tour during that part of the day. I found that layers were essential because the sun can warm things up quickly. You’ll want to give yourself options when it comes to attire.  

Camera- Oh, and of course, you should bring a camera! After all, who gets the chance to see multiple whales at once, during a single day? Your phone camera will work just fine, but I recommend using a waterproof case or pouch, just for an added layer of protection from any sea spray that might come your way. Some boats are fully enclosed, so this is something to consider as you book a tour, too! 

Seasick medication- If you are prone to seasickness, it is possible you will feel nauseous on a whale-watching tour. Even on calm days, the ocean can rock the boat quite a bit. My recommendation (from personal experience) is to take some sort of seasick medication, like Dramamine, and eat something light before you go. Get a seat in the front of the boat so you can look at the horizon, and if you can take a catamaran boat, they are much more stable!

Related Read: Kaikoura is one of the best places to visit on the South Island!

11. Is Whale Watching in Kaikoura Worth It?  

A whale jumps out of the water in Kaikoura, NZ
A whale jumps out of the water in Kaikoura, NZ

If you can’t tell by now, yes! Whale watching in Kaikoura is worth it. In fact, it is one of the cooler things that I have ever done, and I try to make sure everyone gets a chance to do this when they are visiting the area.

The bay is filled with whales, and we saw multiple at one time, which made it that much more surreal of an experience. In comparison to so many other whale-watching experiences all over the world, this one is at the very top of my list.  

Book this classic whale watching tour in Kaikoura with free Cancellation up to 24 hours before online here!

Where to Stay in Kaikoura

Birds eye view of Kaikoura
Stay in the mountains or the beach? It’s a hard choice!

Kaikoura isn’t a large town, however, due to its popularity, there are a ton of great places to stay. The trick is that you need to book in advance to get the best places.

Dolphin Lodge – $

If you’re on a budget there are some great choices. For me, I love staying at the Dolphin Lodge when I’m looking to save a few dollars. The cheapest private rooms here come with a shared bathroom but I myself always get the slightly more expensive room so I can get ready in private. They also have dorm beds for solo travelers. What I love most about the hotel, is the awesome location and ocean views. On top of that, they have a communal kitchen which always saves me a lot of money.

You can check prices and book in advance on Booking.com.

Kaikoura – $$

If you enjoy a little more comfort, then the Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments are a top choice. These gorgeous apartments are oceanfront and come with a modern design and furnishings. The best part is they are located in the heart of Kaikoura and you’re only steps from the beach. They have 1 bedroom and 2 apartments that can sleep up to 4 guests. This is available to book on Booking.com.

Shearwater Apartments – $$$

For high-end travelers, there are a lot of great options in Kaikoura. The Shearwater Apartments really stand out if you want to be close to town but it also has ocean views. This condo-style hotel makes you feel right at home with its luxurious setup, a kitchenette, and a patio. Best of all, it’s beachfront! Be sure to book this in advance on Booking.com.

Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses – $$$

Or, for a really unique stay, consider the Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses and sleep above the forest. Located in Hapuku, just outside of Kaikoura, this tree house accommodation is suspended 30 feet in the air, giving sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, Kaikoura, and the forest. Plus, each room has a 2-person spa bath, a fireplace, and a balcony. You may never want to leave! Check prices and book your room on Booking.com.

Related Read: Many people visit Kaikoura on a road trip from Picton to Christchurch. Read about all of the other amazing stops on this route!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.

Thanks for reading!

bailey on a boat in the ocean
Thanks for reading!

Whale-watching in Kaikoura was easily one of my favorite memories! I’ve never seen so many whales and other wildlife on a tour. It truly boasts New Zealand’s unique beauty, which is exactly why I fell in love with it. With such a range of tours, from boat, to kayak, to airplane or helicopter, I’m sure you will find the perfect fit and have just as much fun as I did.

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and feel prepared for whale watching in Kaikoura. If you are traveling further in New Zealand (which you totally should) let me help! I have lots of other blogs on this website about travel on the South Island and the North Island of New Zealand, including a few related reads below:

Where to Stay in Christchurch – 5 BEST Areas and Hotels (for all budgets!)

35 BEST Things to do in Nelson, New Zealand

18 Things to KNOW Before Renting a Car in Wellington

21 BEST Beaches in New Zealand (that you don’t want to miss!)

Nini

Tuesday 9th of May 2023

Hi! Thank you for your article; you helped me a lot. Quick question, is it necessary to take a cruise to see the whales in action, or can we see them from the bay or near the land? Thank you

Bailey

Wednesday 10th of May 2023

Hey Nina,

A cruise is best. Although you can sometimes see them from the shore, taking a cruise is better.

Thanks Bailey