Among the highlights of a recent wildlife tour of New Zealand were trips into the surrounding waters in search of the world’s most iconic seabirds and mammals. The first was into the Hauraki Gulf, off Auckland, not quite open ocean.
Several miles out we stopped at intervals to dangle bait over the back and throw fish fragments to the assembling birds. Dozens of shearwaters and petrels as well as fairy prions more typical of the Antarctic, criss-crossed and occasionally settled, squabbling behind the boat. White-faced storm petrels danced across the water with dangling feet and at last New Zealand storm petrels arrived, a species thought extinct for 150 years until rediscovered in 2003 by two birders, one of them our tour leader Sav Saville.
At one point a four-foot blue shark appeared. Our skipper dropped a piece of fish on a rope over the back and, when the shark fastened on to it, he nonchalantly leant over and hoisted it half out of the water by its tail. We were impressed!
On South Island we spent a morning on a boat out of Kaikoura where a deep offshore canyon meant we were over water 13000 feet deep. At times dusky dolphins paralleled our boat, leaping from the water. Dangling a food bag over the side brought in a score of giant petrels which then had to give way as the real giants arrived, in this case wandering, northern royal and southern royal albatrosses with the longest wings of any birds (pictured: a southern royal albatross with 12-foot wingspan). They dominated the petrels as well as three slightly smaller albatross species. Small cape petrels hung around the fringes picking up scraps.
That afternoon I opted for a different trip, to search for whales. Tracking a deep-hunting sperm whale by picking up its echolocating clicks on a hydrophone, it was predicted that, once the clicks stopped the whale would be heading for the surface. Sure enough it came up ahead of the boat and stayed stationary for ten minutes, blowing clouds of spray as it reoxygenated its body. It then arched its back and its tail came up vertically as it dived. A sublime experience.
There were two more of these pelagic trips, almost equally memorable with the fascination that it was never possible to predict what would next fly or swim over the horizon.
A sad postscript was that, as I was flying home, Kaikoura was devastated by a powerful earthquake. The skipper of our morning boat lost his house but was quoted as saying that it would give him the chance for the camping holiday he had always wanted!