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Riding on the Back of a Whale

A Maori tribe has turned to whales to lead their struggling New Zealand town to a new life of employment and prosperity

This story was produced in partnership with FUTUREPERFECT.

In the late 1980s, the New Zealand seaside settlement of Kaikōura was in trouble. The economy was in decline, and many jobs had been lost in industries such as fishing, communications, and the railways. In desperation, Māori leaders decided to stake their future on their ancient protectors of the past — whales.

photo of Whale Watch KaikouraPhoto by Gabe LernerMāori leaders in Kaikōura, New Zealand took a risk when they started a whale watching business almost 30 years ago. Today, their town is a thriving sustainable tourism destination.

The local Ngāti Kurī sub-tribe claims descent from an ancestor called Paikea, who is said to have been saved from the sea and brought to safety on the back of a great whale. Whales had continued to be an important part of the lives of people in Kaikōura, which is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen close to shore year-round.

Could whales again be Ngāti Kurī’s salvation? “In the wee small hours of the morning, the idea of setting up a whale-watching business started going around the meeting rooms,” says Lisa Bond, of Whale Watch Kaikōura, the business that emerged from the community effort.

Bill Solomon and other Ngāti Kurī elders knew whale-watching was popular overseas and decided to take a gamble on the venture succeeding in New Zealand.

Four Māori families mortgaged their homes to buy an inflatable boat capable of taking up to eight passengers at a time out into the Pacific Ocean to spot whales.

A future for generations to come

“It was a risk, but a risk that our leaders took out of sheer determination to create a future for their families for the generations to come,” says Bond.

That first year, Ngāti Kurī’s small boat took a total of 3000 people whale-watching. Now, almost 30 years later, Whale Watch Kaikōura is a multi-million dollar business carrying just under 100,000 passengers annually on its fleet of specially-designed catamarans.

The business is 100 percent Māori-owned, is the largest employer in town, and has led the transformation of Kaikōura into a thriving visitor destination with an international reputation for sustainable tourism.

A haven for marine life

“Spotting a whale is always a magical and beautiful thing. I never take them for granted, no matter how often I see them,” says Bond, who joined Whale Watch Kaikōura in 1995, at the age of 19. She hadn’t spent much time on the ocean up to then, but says she fell in love with whales the first time she saw one. Since then, Lisa has worked her way up from tour guide to boat skipper and now onto the company’s marketing team.

Kaikōura, on the northeast of New Zealand’s South Island, is a haven for whales and other sea creatures because a deep undersea canyon off the coastline creates currents that sustain a rich marine food chain.

photo of San Bruno DunesPhoto courtesy of Whale Watch KaikōuraKaikōura, New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen close to shore year-round.

Just a few kilometres from shore, the continental shelf falls away and the ocean plunges down for 1000 metres. Sperm whales dive into the canyon to hunt giant squid, sharks, and fish.

While sperm whales can be seen in all seasons, blue whales, humpback whales, pilot whales and southern right whales are also regular visitors. Visitors can see dolphins, orca, penguins and fur seals, as well as marine birds such as albatross and shearwaters.

Kaikōura’s livelihood depended on whales once before: in the first few decades of the 19th century, the settlement was a major centre for whaling. Some species were driven almost to extinction but now whale numbers are slowly recovering, thanks to New Zealand’s strict regulations around the protection of marine animals. This includes a ban on boats getting closer than 50 meters to a whale.

Some of the sperm whales that visit Kaikōura regularly appear to recognize the Whale Watch boats, Bond says. Skippers can identify individual whales by the unique combination of patterns, scars, nicks, and tooth marks on the edge of their tails.

Sticking with Māori principles

Whales have turned Kaikōura’s fortunes around. Once a struggling town with very high unemployment rates, Kaikōura is now a lively community with job opportunities in its eco-tourism businesses, cafes, restaurants, shops and accommodation providers. Many of the descendants of Bill Solomon and the other four founding families work at Whale Watch Kaikōura today.

Bond says the business is based on two important Māori principles: manaakitanga (hospitality to visitors) and kaitiakitanga (protection of the natural world).

To honor kaitiakitanga, for example, Whale Watch Kaikōura’s four 48-passenger catamarans have Hamilton jet units to minimize underwater noise, and an internal propeller to reduce the risk of a propellor hitting a sea creature.

In the 1990s, however, the Kaikoura community realized the rise in visitor numbers was beginning to have an impact on nature and the local infrastructure. It decided to adopt a sustainable approach to growth in the district, and is now platinum certified under the EarthCheck sustainable communities program.

Developed from the United Nations environmental program, EarthCheck is a scientific benchmarking, certification, and advisory group for the travel and tourism industries. Under the program, Kaikoura monitors the community’s impact on the environment and works to reduce the pressure on resources.

Whale Watch Kaikōura has won several major international tourism accolades, including the Australasian Responsible Tourism Award at the 2014 World Travel Awards in India. Bond says indigenous peoples from countries including Canada, Tonga, and other Pacific Islands have visited the business to see if they can replicate its green tourism model back home.

“I think Bill Solomon would be very proud of what we’ve done,” says Bond. “In a sense, we’re still riding the back of the whale, just like our ancestor Paikea, but in a sustainable way.”

Linley Boniface
Linley Boniface is a freelance writer from Wellington, New Zealand.

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