Kayaking with Fur Seals!

After a gorgeous drive through a largely open series of Wyoming-esque valleys and winding hills (the “Scenic Route” still has a number of ONE-LANE BRIDGES crossing wide dry river beds, which must be shared with any drivers coming from the opposite direction), we arrived in the coastal town of Kaikoura. I bought Annalies and Edith coffee, then they dropped me off — and I was the first to check in to the hostel! 11 AM – Wow. Great to be on the road before most other tourists have rolled out of bed!

I dressed light, for the hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula, and duly set off — but at the far end of town, I spotted a sign advertising a half-day Sea(l) Kayaking trip around the peninsula, and I stopped into the visitor center for more info. Turns out the tour was just about to head out, and there were only 4 others signed up, so I joined.

The tour uses double (tandem) sea kayaks, and the other 4 were tourists traveling together from Finland, so I got to paddle with the guide. We could have paddled together all day — so very comfortably we synched strokes, nosing this way and that between limpet-crusted rocks the size of semitrucks, small homes, riding out the great swells which raised and dropped our kayaks perhaps a dozen feet, crest to trough. I felt very comfortable. It is always a joy to paddle with someone who really knows what they are doing. For the guide’s part (he was in the back, which steers and is the seat for the most powerful paddler) he complimented me on the power of my paddling. I think the back-seat paddler sometimes gets stuck doing most of the work.

The seal colonies at Kaikoura, interestingly enough, are about 99.5% male. The males have a bad habit of brutalizing the young pups, so the mother fur seals have a colony south of here, towards Christchurch, where they gather to whelp and rear their young. The young males swim north to join the “big boys” in their 2nd year. We did see five or six second-yearlings, which were tiny compared to the great bulls. Out of water, they loll on the rocks, sunning themselves. In the water, they are graceful, lifting their thin flippers out of the water often, to warm them.

The seaweed beds out on Kaikoura head are impressive — the water is deep, but the great ochre-yellow leaves rise considerable height to float on the surface, fringing the rocks with great yellow strands. When we poked between a couple rock lines, I reached down and lifted one of the strands — it was heavy, thicker than a heavy rubber wetsuit, and filled with air, with the texture of wet leather.

It was quite a show. The sleek guys did a lot of showing off, rolling twists in the water around our kayaks, or swimming fast and propelling themselves entirely out of the water (!) as they leapt (this sometimes happens when they are chasing fish) – or just quietly raising their whiskered faces out of the water to grunt at us, quizzically. I can’t imagine what they think of such visitors. Sometimes they dove under the hulls, and I found myself holding my breath, wondering what they see beneath the surface.

POSTSCRIPT: I asked the young guys from Finland if they’d ever heard of “Popular Music from Vittula” and they were incredulous. Vittula? Vittula? they asked themselves. Vittula is a small town in the far north of the country, just about as well known as, say, Big Bay Michigan, until the book came along. Yes, I loved the book, I said. The book? You read the book? Apparently the book was turned into a MOVIE which is now quite popular in Finland, but they were rather amazed that I had read the book that it was based upon. I gave them my email address, as they brought out their digital camera (risky) in the kayak, and got a few good shots of the seals as we were kayaking. They promised to send something after they return to Finland in January.

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