Sometimes when plans change, they change in the most unexpected ways. During a trip to the South Island of New Zealand, exactly that happened. The result of bad weather across the country and limited time to travel long distances resulted in a trip to Kaikoura, 180km north of Christchurch. What awaited us as a spontaneous morning activity was a memory we’ll never forget. So, here’s the story of how a last-minute drive up the coast led us to the most epic whale watching in Kaikoura experience… In a helicopter.
How A Trip To A Glacier Turned Into Whale Watching In Kaikoura
I’ve always wanted to ride in a helicopter. It’s been a dream to one day glide over mountain peaks with the Earth surrounding me in all directions. And I always knew New Zealand would be the place to do it.
Since WWOOFing in Franz Josef, I wanted the place to fly up the snowy ridges to be that crazy little town on the West Coast. I wanted to take on the helihike to traverse through the ice and snow atop the Franz Josef Glacier that I’d spent so much time gazing at during my stay there. But, a little thing called Mother Nature got in the way. That’s right, the famously unpredictable, notoriously wet, and frustratingly regular West Coast rain was out in full force. So much so, that the booking we’d made literally months prior was cancelled more than 2 days ahead of our scheduled trip. What. A. Bummer.
Cancelling Plans & Booking A New Trip
With the helihike being the only reason for visiting Franz Josef, it seemed ridiculous to go somewhere with the knowledge that the few activities that are available inside would be the only things we’d get to enjoy. Suddenly, the trip didn’t seem so worth it. We made the executive decision to cancel our trip to the West Coast. We knew it wouldn’t be enjoyable knowing we’d be stuck indoors, and having been (and lived) there before, why would be go just to be rained on for 3 days? Thank the stars for booking.com‘s free cancellation policies, as we cancelled the FJ accommodation that same day and didn’t have to pay a penny.
Determined not to let our few days of annual leave go to waste, we set about scouring Google for alternative trips. Keeping the looming weather in mind, our options were limited. We wanted to go somewhere within a short drive of Christchurch and somewhere that would give us a different experience than previous trips. We COULD stay in Christchurch, go back to Akaroa, or maybe even back to Hanmer Springs? But none of those stood out. Then when looking into Kaikoura, we knew it would be the perfect choice.
Why We Chose To Visit Kaikoura From Christchurch
Kaikoura is only a 2.5 hour drive from Christchurch, making it a perfect weekend trip destination. Along the way are some truly incredible coastal views, plus some mountainous winding roads for good measure (thanks, NZ!). We knew the weather was meant to be beautiful, sunshine rather than storms – yay! And, we knew there were cool things to do in Kaikoura that neither of us had done before. Why go anywhere else?
We set about browsing for a place to stay and found a relatively cheap motel right on the beach front. We then thought about what activities we’d most like to enjoy during our visit and what’s recommended for this time of year. Being winter, many of Kaikoura’s main attractions are at risk of being called off due to weather or won’t be as enjoyable in the cold. We ruled out swimming with dolphins due to the latter. We then ruled out dolphin watching as I’ve done that in Kaikoura on a previous visit. That left us with whale watching left on top!
How We Chose to Go Whale Watching In A Helicopter
Our search for the best activity to do in Kaikoura moved us to compare the helihike we’d hoped to accomplish in Franz Josef to find similar excursions in Kaikoura. And that’s where we came across whale watching by helicopter with South Pacific Helicopters. It seemed perfect, they ticked every box we were looking for!
- Unique activity that makes the trip special
- Spending time outdoors
- Something we hadn’t done before
- Experiencing wildlife and/or nature
- Helicopter flight over mountains
Which Whale Watching Flight Should I Pick?
All we had to do was choose what experience we wanted and make the booking. We opted for the Premier flight. A 1 hour trip to include:
- Observing marine life (whales) around Kaikoura
- See the whole whale and orbit them
- Scenic flight over the peninsula and coast
- Alpine landing on Mount Fyffe
This is the second-longest and second-highest priced flight available. The “Ultimate Adventure” package for 80 minutes at the top end of the options included a second alpine landing, but we felt it was sensible to limit our costs without compromising on the experience. To be honest, I imagine the extended flight is worth every cent, however, for the additional cost and the purpose of our trip we were happy with the Premier package.
Alternative flight options are a simple Explorer package to view and orbit whales for 30 minutes, or a 45 minute whale watching and brief mountain landing with the Ocean Safari package. The varying times allow for visitors to enjoy a trip no matter how much time they have. Anyone can squeeze in a spare 30 minutes!
Whale Watching Helicopter Flights In Kaikoura Cost
The cheapest flight cost is $350 (NZD), and the most expensive is $895. The Premier package we went with was $650. This was a healthy medium of all the packages available, and well worth the cost. Bookings are available throughout the day, and as the whales can be viewed throughout the day and year-round there’s no restrictions on your trip apart from the weather!
It’s here that I’d like to give a MASSIVE shoutout to my partner in crime, my favourite Kiwi, Kazimir. His drive and eagerness to just go for it and enjoy our trip quashed any niggling doubts about booking the helicopter whale watching experience. It made me even more excited and definitely reminded me that money can’t buy you happiness, but it can sure buy you some amazing experiences!
What Makes Kaikoura So Special?
Kaikoura is most famous for its unrivalled abundance of marine life. Thanks to the nearby Hikurangi Trench there is a wealth of food sources for hungry marine mammals and seabirds. This puts Kaikoura peninsula is in a prime position for all sorts of water-based marine activities. What started out as a fishing and whaling town quickly became a tourist attraction.
Nowadays, Kaikoura has positioned itself as a destination to “get close to nature” – and they’re doing a great job! The old fishing traditions are still continuing to this day (the whaling has thankfully ended). Kaikoura’s past lives on through the township’s efforts to remember the Maori heritage as well as the European history. The museum, tour operators, and locals are eager to show what makes Kaikoura special. In fact, the name Kaikoura literally means meal of crayfish, so you can even be sure you’ll get the freshest seafood during your stay, if that takes your fancy.
Why Choose To Go Whale Watching In A Helicopter In Kaikoura
Unless you’re big into surfing, fishing, or kayaking the best way to get out to the waters is through an organised wildlife watching experience. Our goal was to witness some of the most iconic marine mammals in their natural homes surrounding Kaikoura. To see such graceful, gentle creatures in the wild was anticipated to be an unforgettable experience. And we knew if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it in a special way.
As well as whale watching helicopter flights, there is also the option to go whale watching by plane or boat. All of these experiences share the values of showcasing to visitors these incredible animals. It really is personal preference, time restrictions, and budgets that will impact which you choose to do. In my opinion whale watching by helicopter in Kaikoura is a truly unique experience, especially if, like me, you haven’t been in a helicopter before!
It was the added value of the scenic views that made it an easy decision for us to choose a whale watching helicopter flight experience for our visit to Kaikoura.
Should you go whale watching in Kaikoura by boat, plane, or helicopter?
This really depends on what you want from the experience. I’ve not been whale watching by boat, but did go dolphin watching around the same parts of Kaikoura peninsula. If you want to get as close as possible, then whale watching by boat is your best option. Your best chance for an epic tail splash shot will come from the the sides of the boats over the window of a plane any day.
However, from the slower manoeuvres of a boat you’ll get a rather static view point. You also won’t be able to chase new whale sightings at speed. This is where whale watching by helicopter wins. Being high up you’ll not only get breathtaking moment of capturing the whales movements, but also see the surroudings coastline and mountains. The added benefit of being in an aerial vehicle is ease of movement. You’ll be able to visit locations where whales have been spotted quickly, and get low enough to capture the magic before these majestic animals dive below the surface. So, if a more dramatic experience is what you’re after, then whale watching by helicopter in Kaikoura is a preferable option.
What About Whale Watching By Plane?
Whale watching plane trips offer a similar experience to helicopter flights. We noticed the planes out on tours at the same time as our flight could get much lower than us, which would be a major benefit to the helicopter. The gentler movements of a plane will also be appealing to those likely to get motion sickness, or who are nervous flyers. Their disadvantages being the lack of agility, as the helicopter can definitely move adapt to the whale’s unpredictable movements more easily.
In my opinion, the experience of whale watching in a helicopter is more fulfilling than whale watching by boat. You’ll get the chance to understand the sheer scale of how enormous these creatures are, and the vast space they occupy in the ocean. The appreciation for the scenic landscape of Kaikoura cannot be ignored, either. I’d also choose a helicopter over whale watching by plane as the form of transport means you’ll get to see a lot more than other whale watching experiences.
Preparing & Safety Briefing For Our Whale Watching Helicopter Flight
We arrived the morning of our whale watching helicopter flight at Kaikoura airport. It’s the tiniest airport I’ve ever seen! Primarily used for tour excursions and local flights, it doesn’t see as much chaos as Heathrow, that’s for sure.
We arrived earlier than the scheduled time (9am) because we assumed there’d be some briefing and paperwork to fill out prior to the flight. And as it turns out, we were right!
TOP TIP: arrive around 15 minutes before your activity starts, that way you won’t hold up other passengers and can maximise your experience.
A quick T&Cs signing and we were sat down to watch a short intro video about Kaikoura and the whales we’d hope to see. It was pretty interesting, and catered towards all levels of knowledge about marine life. At this point, we suspected that it might be just the two of us and the pilot on our trip… What a treat! But then we were informed by our friendly and helpful guide, Pete, that we were awaiting the two other passengers who were running late. Darn it!
Without wanting to delay the trip, Pete showed us another informative safety briefing video. What we enjoyed about the videos was the distinctly family-owned feel. The cheeky, light-hearted tone and even the owner making an appearance in the video made us feel assured we’d picked a company who truly care about their work. Whether that’s giving an awesome experience, to taking care of their customers (keep reading to see just how far they’ll go!).
A bit of waiting around and the clock began to tick closer to our departure time. No sign of the other attendees. Choosing to press on, Pete guided us out to the helicopter.
Strapping In For Our Whale Watching Flight
With life jackets strapped on, we hopped into our seats of the helicopter. In my not-so graceful excitement to be given the front seat, I accidentally dropped my camera lens cap under the seat! Ooops… Pete assured me it happens all the time and he could recover it on our return. I still felt silly though.
We were shown how to use the radio mics and about getting in and out of the helicopter, when the two other passengers FINALLY showed up!! A good 15 minutes after we should have departed, we tried not to be resentful of their delay, but it was still a little annoying.
TOP TIP FOLKS: Always always try to be on time. And if you do happen to be late, apologise to your fellow travellers!
And just like that, the engines were fired up, Pete was flicking switches, and we were off! If you haven’t flown in a helicopter, the take off is a really unusual sensation. Unlike a plane, there’s almost no taxi time and you’re simply up in the air in seconds. We did use the runway, but we were already above ground at that point!
What It’s Like Whale Watching From A Helicopter In Kaikoura
Immediately, we were blown away by the epic views ahead. We chose a bright blue-skied morning which made the ocean sparkle below. The horizon stretched all the way along the rugged coastline as far as Banks Peninsula to the south! There really isn’t a way to describe how incredible our surroundings were. I was already satisfied by just the flight, let alone seeing any whales!
Once we were far out enough, Pete informed us we’d be heading to a location where the boats had spotted a sperm whale! We circled around lots (you have to get used to twists and turns in a helicopter) until we reached the site.
Low and behold, we caught the absolutely incredible moment the sperm whale took a dive down into the water – revealing the coveted tail shot that everyone hopes for! What incredible luck. We were SO excited!
Another sighting of a hump back whale came in not long after, so after circling a few more times and spotting a pod of husky dolphins on the way, we managed to catch a glimpse of the enormous hump back right before its descent below the water.
Viewing The Landscape From An Alpine Landing In Kaikoura
With the whale watching element of our helicopter flight over, we continued over the grassy fields towards the mountains for our alpine landing. It was breathtaking to be flying so close to the mountainsides on our way up to the summit of Mount Fyffe. Once we were above the mountains, Pete gracefully landing the helicopter to allow us to get out.
The chance for a moment of peace and quiet was very welcome. And it helped not feeling like we were in a washing machine! The bright sunshine was beating down on us, and the patches of snow around the mountains added a beautiful texture and atmosphere to this surreal moment.
Pete informed us that through the mountains we could just make out the North Island thanks to the clear skies! And to the south we could see more of the Southern Alps and Banks Peninsula on the coastline. A pretty remarkable viewing spot to top off this awesome adventure.
Pete took a few photos of us and we snapped as much of the unfolding landscape as possible before we had to leave. The short flight took us back over the mountains and down to the airport where we said all our thank you’s and left with the biggest beaming smiles.
Things To Know About Whale Watching In A Helicopter In Kaikoura
- You might not be guaranteed to see a whale… But you might see multiple whales in one flight! Don’t have too many expectations and you won’t be disappointed.
- Flying and circling so much can make you feel nauseous. Tell the pilot if you feel unwell and they’ll be able to help.
- The best seats to see whales are on the left hand side. It’s the opposite side to the pilot’s seat and they’ll want you to have the best views!
- Talking to each other can be challenging if you struggle to nail the microphone technique. Hold it very close to your mouth for the best results.
A Shout Out To South Pacific Helicopters:
Pete was a real gem throughout our experience. Even when he couldn’t recover my stupid lens cap even after the flight, asked for our number so he could give us a call when he’d retrieved it! We bumped into him in town later that day as he was finding a good “grabber” to get it… I felt awful that he had to go to so much effort! The next morning we awoke to a text from Pete with a picture of the pesky lens cap. We stopped by on our way back to Christchurch and exchanged the lens cap for a box of Thank You chocs for the team. Now THAT is customer service. I’m so grateful to Pete and the gang at South Pacific for all their help, and the amazing experience!
Final Thoughts On What To Do When The Weather Changes Your Plans
It’s not uncommon for the weather to impact your travel plans. In fact, when I wrote about travel fails and dealing with travel mishaps when it seems everything is going against you, the weather accounted for the majority of those failed plans! But, we can’t control the weather. So the best thing you can do is keep calm, and make a new plan.
It sounds simple, but really that’s the best action to take. When you can’t enjoy what you’d set out to do, there is always something else equally if not more enjoyable! Embrace the unexpected, and don’t let disappointment get in the way of exciting new experiences.
Have you taken a helicopter flight before? Or would you want to go whale watching in a helicopter? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!
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