Shooting very very very big fish (with a Nikon)

Maoris in eastern New Zealand have turned a remote fishing village into a mecca for eco-tourists. Robert McKelvie, a self-confessed cynic, was moved by what he experienced there

"Whale Ahoy!" screamed the skipper as the hunters raise their weapons. The exposed mammal prepares to dive, but it is too late: he's been caught. This time, though, the adolescent sperm whale will survive - his hunters have traded in their harpoons and ropes for Canons and Nikons.

Welcome to Kaikoura, once an anonymous fishing village on New Zealand's desolate east coast, now blossoming into one of the most popular eco-tourism destinations on the planet; a meeting place where pilgrims from all over the world flock to frolic with their marine mammal cousins.

Tucked between the snow-laced Seaward Kaikouras mountain range on one flank and the Pacific Ocean on the other, Kaikoura ("Feed of Crayfish" in Maori) enjoys a spectacular location that attracted a sprinkling of visitors even before the eco-tourism explosion. In 1987, 3,400 tourists dribbled into the town whose population is only 3,200, but by 1995 the number of visitors had mushroomed to 188,000.

The reason the tourists come here is obvious: Kaikoura is the gateway to the Southern Oceans Marine Mammal Sanctuary and is regarded as one of the best places in the world to get within touching distance of whales in their natural habitat, go swimming with dolphins and even, more bizarrely, snorkelling with seals. But why Kaikoura? What's in it for the local wildlife?

Again the reasons are simple. Just a kilometre offshore the deep water of the Hikurangi Trench rises to meet the balmy water of the coastal Pacific. This convergence of sub-tropical and sub-Antarctic water triggers a natural chain reaction that starts with microscopic phytoplanktons and culminates with the largest mammals on the planet. This unique ecosystem generates a wealth of food from plankton through to deep water fish and squid that act like a giant fast-food joint, with whales, dolphins and seals all cruising in to enjoy the organic goodies.

The outlook was not always so rosy for the native wildlife. The local Maori community, resident in the area for almost 1,000 years, almost hunted the New Zealand Fur Seal into oblivion. Then it was the turn of the European settlers. Not content with taking their toll on the indigenous population, they turned their attention seawards and in 1834 eight whaling ships were operating out of Kaikoura, hunting the bountiful supply of whales just offshore. As the whales emerged from the depths to breathe, they were easy prey for the hunters and their harpoons. Numbers plummeted to a precariously low level, but, ironically, the hunting came to an end before it was too late, not as the result of pressure group campaigning or the New Zealand government's famed "green" environmental policies, but because hunting the scant remains of the whale population was no longer financially viable.

When the whales started to return to Kaikoura, the local Maori, the Ngai Tahu, put the increasing global trend for eco-tourism and high unemployment in the Maori community together and came up with Whale Watch Kaikoura Ltd. At first obtaining a loan from the main banks proved impossible, but, undeterred, they clubbed their meagre finances together, secured a commercial loan from an indigenous bank, and bought their first boat in 1987. By 1989 daily trips had commenced and since then the fairy tale has galloped on, with four to six trips daily in a flotilla of custom designed boats.

The initiative has won a brace of tourist accolades, including a British Airways Golden Globes Award. Fifty Maori are now employed by the company, now the largest single employer in town, with the business entirely supported by tribal finance. The success of the venture has done much to appease relations between Pakeha (the Maori moniker for European settlers) and the native population as Maori unemployment has fallen sharply and the business spin-offs, in terms of increased demands for services in the area, have benefited the entire community.

Killer whales (southern summer), humpbacks (mainly June and July), and right and blue whales (occasionally) visit Kaikoura, but it is the ubiquitous sperm whale, the largest toothed mammal in the world, that most people come to meet. Everything about the sperm is titanic. Males grow to around 15m in length, have a 1 tonne tongue and a heart the size of a small car that pumps up to 3 tonnes of blood around the leviathan hulk. They also possess the largest brains in the world. Young adult whales can spend up to a year off Kaikoura, feeding and socialising, as the young studs polish their courting techniques before joining their prospective mates on a migration to warmer waters further north.

As we bounce out across the milky blue Pacific on our "hunt", the snow tipped mountains melt into a spectacular backdrop and the excitement mounts. The engines are cut and we listen with an underwater microphone that picks up the echo-location "clicks" of the whales "talking". The clicks stop. "That means he is about to surface and it could be anywhere," announces our guide. The thought of the Moby Dick sending us hurtling into orbit as he surfaces sends a ripple of apprehension through the boat, but we are assured we have been reading too much Herman Melville: "The, myth of people being whipped into the air by the tail is just that - a myth," says our guide. "You would only be in danger if you attack them, how would you react if someone stuck a harpoon into your back?"

Mammal squeals and gasps echo from our boat as the adolescent whale bursts onto the surface. Reel after reel of camera film disappear as he floats beside us like a breathing shadow, spouting a jet of water high into the salty air every 20 seconds. "Cameras at the ready," calls the guide, "he's about to dive!" Everyone on board is desperate to capture that tail shot and our aquatic acquaintance obliges with a crowd pleasing curling lash of his tail as he plummets deep into the uncharted nether world of the Hikurangi Trench.

While whales have put Kaikoura on the map, the dolphins provide a more spectacular and interactive experience. The hectors dolphins, the smallest in the world, are an endangered species found only in New Zealand waters, with a total population only thought to be around 3,000-4,000, but they are not as flirtatious as the dusky dolphins who are the real stars of the show. Our guide Caroline Jones, of Kaikoura Wildlife Centre, reckons they are "the friendliest and most playful in the world". Only 2 metres long, they can swim at speeds exceeding 45km/hr and can dive to depths of up to 200m. In the Antipodean summer pods, of up to 500 are not uncommon, but they are less visible in winter as they face the predatory threat of sharks close to the shore.

Kaikoura Wildlife Centre runs trips out to swim with the dusky dolphins, a seminal experience for many visitors. The ethos is very much of interaction rather than intrusion, as we learn "dolphin etiquette": the crew will not allow us to disturb a pod who are feeding, mating or tending to their young. We are kitted out in wet suits, snorkelling masks and flippers and hurled off the back of the boat when we find a suitable pod. "When you get out there make as much noise as you can," advises Caroline Jones of the Wildlife Centre. "Splash around and sing anything. We are here to entertain them or they'll get bored and swim off."

As if to prove the point the first two pods are not impressed and leave quickly. The third time, though, I change tack and attempt to "entertain" them. They seem intrigued by my snorkelled rendition of "Flower of Scotland". They swim up to me. I splash. They wriggle. I sing louder. They thrash more vigorously, before swimming towards me and pirouetting straight up in front of me in. Even a cynic like myself will find it hard not to be moved.

If you overdose on whales and dolphins don't despair as Kaikoura is also a sanctuary for an eclectic array of wildlife. New Zealand fur seals - their numbers now rising - bask on the rocks all along the Kaikoura Coastal Walk, the most popular half day walk in the country. The Kaikoura Wildlife Centre even offers the unlikely opportunity to swim with seals. Aggressive on the land where they feel vulnerable, they are gregarious and mischievous underwater, especially the young pups. Add to the natural cocktail the royal albatross, shearwaters, gulls and ganets. Throw in the mollymawks, cape pigeons herons, petrels and the penguins, and you have an abundance of rare and endangered species within reach of an easily accessible coastline.

Critics question the wisdom of promoting Kaikoura as a meeting place between humans and our mammal relations. The logic goes that surely the swelling number of visitors - Whale Watch Kaikoura expect to play host to over 50,000 tourists in 1997 - must have a detrimental effect on the local marine bio-diversity. But this conclusion ignores the New Zealand government's regular environmental impact studies and the reality that tourist demand for whales, dolphins and seals remains insatiable. Caroline Jones feels that bringing people out here is better than holding these wild animals in marine parks, and also ends up prolonging the life span and quality of life for the animals.

"Out here they are happy," she says. "The dolphins live for an average of 25 years. The life span in an aquarium is around seven years. Draw your own conclusions, but I know what I think the dolphins prefer."

whale Fact file

Tours

The Whale Watch tours operate daily all year round and cost around pounds 50. Book at least three days in advance inside New Zealand on 0800-655121. Whale Watch Air offers a "top and tail" whale watching flight for those with uneasy sea legs. Expect to pay around pounds 40 (03-3196580), Kaikoura Wildlife Centre (03-3196622) offers dolphin swimming, all gear included, for pounds 40, non-swimmers only pay pounds 30. Its seal swimming trips cost only pounds 20.

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