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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Attack of the Killer Seals

Written by Michelle Waitzman
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Kaikoura, New Zealand is an eco-tourist’s wet dream. Whales, dolphins, and seals all hang out in the calm waters of Kaikoura just waiting for us to plop down some cash and go out in a boat to visit them. In fact, the town’s name is Maori for “meal of crayfish”, so you can guess what the local specialty is!

The first time I passed through Kaikora on my way up to the North Island, I felt little pressure to do and see it all, due the fact that I would be passing through a second time through the route of my hop-on/ hop-off backpacker bus. However, a lot of the people from my bus were going swimming with the dolphins. It sounded cool, but it was a little pricey, so I figured I would wait until I got some first-hand accounts before making any decisions about it. Instead, I decided to pursue the one free wildlife activity in town and take a hike out to the seal colony.

sealsThe seals made their home on a peninsula just south of the town, and I was forewarned that I was in for a four-hour hike to do the round trip. No problem, I thought, I’ve got all afternoon. I hadn’t really met anyone from the bus yet, so I went out on my own to have a little adventure.

As I started along the peninsula, there was a spot where the path divided. One direction took you along the shore, the other along the top of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I chose the low road, wanting to see the seals up close and personal.

It was all going along well until the shoreline began to narrow. I ended up stepping knee-deep into the water a couple of times because there was nowhere else to walk. But it was just water, so I wasn’t concerned.

I was thrilled when I started coming across huge fur seals in little groups, lying around the rocks on shore. They were totally unconcerned about me, and I was only about ten feet from them. Not only that, there were no other people around at all, just the seals and me! I felt like I was getting a unique chance to commune with nature.




As the ocean crept in again I had to squeeze by one seal a little closer than he (or she, I couldn’t tell) was comfortable with. He let out a big roar at me as I hurried by. I apologized humbly without breaking my stride. This was their turf, and I was outnumbered in a big way!

To my relief the path turned inland a little, giving me more room to walk. As I rounded the corner my feet froze to the rock in surprise.

Standing right in front of me was a single penguin! It stopped and stared at me for a moment as if equally surprised to run into a person. I’m not sure how long we stood like that. It was probably just a few seconds, but it was one of those moments where time seems to move more slowly than normal.penguin

I came to my senses and began digging in my backpack to get my camera out. Meanwhile, the penguin came to his/her senses and turned around to run away from me. I followed it for long enough to snap a picture, then watched it head straight into the water where it would feel safe from crazy tourists.

I was feeling pretty elated about my bonus wildlife encounter, when ahead of me the path appeared to run out. All I could see was the cliff meeting the water with nothing in between. How is this possible? It’s a walking path. It’s not supposed to hit a dead end!

Then I realized it was late in the afternoon. When does the tide come in here? I hadn’t asked anyone before heading out. Maybe you aren’t supposed to walk this path in the afternoon. Maybe that’s why there was no one else walking along the shore. I remembered the spots further back where I’d been knee-deep in water. How much deeper was it now? Could I go back that way at all? What about the grumpy seal? I was screwed!

Slightly back from where I’d ended up, the cliff was actually more of a steep, grassy slope. I thought climbing up to the cliff-top path might be my best bet. Ah, the cliff-top path. Clearly that was the route all of the sane people took!

I started up the hill, occasionally grabbing tufts of long grass to help pull myself up. I hoped the grass was strong enough to bear my weight, because if I fell down to the rocks I was looking at a broken leg at the very least! Had I told anyone I was coming out here? How long would it take before anyone else came out that way? Would I get washed out to sea at high tide?

Okay, so looking down was not a good idea. Just keep going up. Up is good. Up is where you need to be. Don’t fall and it will all be fine. But wait – I could see the top! I made it up and was absolutely ecstatic. I took a moment to chastise myself for being stupid enough to wander off, hours from town, and not tell anyone where I was going. Note to self: when going somewhere you could get hurt or killed, make sure somebody knows where to search for your remains!

I found the path along the cliff top that led me through a sheep pasture (do all paths in New Zealand eventually lead through a sheep pasture?) and out to the road that led back to town. I finally arrived at my hostel exhausted and filthy, but unharmed.

The reports coming back from the dolphin swimmers were positive, so I thought about saving a little money up to do that on my next time through Kaikora. Clearly I couldn’t be trusted to partake in any unsupervised activities, so I’d go for the organized excursions instead. My adventures in New Zealand were definitely starting off with a bang!

© Michelle Waitzman

Michelle Waitsman is the author of  "How to Make Love in a Tent: Romantic Camping Adventures for Wild Couples" to be released in the spring of 2007 by Wilderness Press.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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