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11 Things to KNOW Before Going Whale Watching in Kaikoura

11 Things to KNOW Before Going Whale Watching in Kaikoura

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. 

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’ time 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.

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 it’s 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. 

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. 

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 that 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 3 and a half hours of exploration aboard a modern catamaran, led by a local guide who will provide live commentary about the wildlife you are seeing.  

For $165 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 thing that isn’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 in online here in advance 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 located very conveniently in relation to 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 from Christchurch is probably the best thing for you! 

For just over $350 NZD, you will spend 11 hours on this tour between your 5 hours round-trip of transportation, the whale watching experience, and a wine tasting in North Canterbury. It’s one of the best tours from Christchurch – talk about an all-inclusive experience!  

The region is not only known for its whales, but also for its wine, so this tour is the perfect pairing (no pun intended) of two important parts of northern New Zealand. 

You’ll have roundtrip transportation to Kaikoura and Christchurch, a local guide, lunch, whale watching, a fur seal colony viewing, a wine tasting, and an air-conditioned vehicle. All the components of your day are handled.

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: Did you know there are lots of epic places to stop on the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura?! Just rent a car in Christchurch and then hit the road!

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. 

You can take this wildlife sea kayaking tour to do just that! At just $130 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.  

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.  

For $190 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 online 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 $315 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!

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 the 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.  

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.  

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.  

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.  

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! 

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 we 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.  

Where to Stay in Kaikoura

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

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

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.

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.

For high-end travelers, there are a lot of great options in Kaikoura. The Shearwater Apartments really stands out if you want to be close to town. Imagine luxury apartments right on the water with ocean views. If you’d prefer a stay nestled closer to the mountains the Manakau Lodge is one of the best-rated hotels in Kaikoura. Or, for a really unique stay, consider the Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses and sleep above the forest.

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!

Travel Insurance Has Your Back!

Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.

If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!

To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.

Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!

Thanks for reading!

bailey on a boat in the ocean
Thanks for reading!

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and feel prepared for whale watching in Kaikoura. I have lots of other blogs on this website about travel on the South Island, including a few related reads below:

Road Trip Itinerary from Picton to Kaikoura

Things to do in Nelson

18 Things to KNOW Before Renting a Car in Wellington

The BEST Things to do in New Zealand


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


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