The wild side of New Zealand

The Sperm whale’s tail rose, causing a cascade to trickle back into the water, I held my breath. This was my last precious moment with this incredible, huge, beautiful, almost mythical mammal and so far, the experience had been magical.

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Higher and higher it goes until the waxy grey silhouette is parallel with the horizon and then, the final tail slap – hitting the water with such ferocity. And then he is gone, diving to depths of almost 2,000 metres to feed.

This particular Sperm whale is a semi-resident. He has been spotted around the sleepy east coast town of Kaikoura, New Zealand regularly. His distinct tail markings and dorsal fin are how the experts at Whale Watch Kaikoura identify him. His 18-metre length is impressive and his bulging 60 tonnes is three times the weight of our boat.

We see two adult males this morning. Both stay close, around 30 metres. Depending on the season, Humpbacks, Southern Right, Minke, Beaked and Blue whales are also spotted here.

During our journey back to land, hundreds of Dusky dolphins join us for the ride; performing flips alongside the boat. Lazing across the rocks are wide-eyed Fur seals, all happily sunbathing without a care in the world.

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A few weeks later, I find myself on the Otago Peninsula. Just minutes after Kyle – owner of Kaimata Retreat Lodge – takes me out on his boat, we spot two young endemic Hooker’s sea lions playing in the water. They roll, flip, dive and roar until one lazily backs away. The remaining fella is more curious and swims over. Then, as we start the engine, he plays, telling us he wants more fun. We spend half an hour whizzing around Victory Beach while he chases us.

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At New Zealand’s southern most point in the Catlins region, the Arctic winds have started to pick up. As temperatures plummet from the 23 to four degrees, I find myself on a beach, looking out for the rare and endemic Yellow-Eyed penguin. They have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2010, and it’s thought only 4,000 remain. Yet at sunset, a few will waddle out of the Southern Ocean and head for shelter, away from preying (fur seal) eyes. Somewhere out at sea, Hector dolphins are performing flips.

I end my trip at the south island’s stunning west coast. Imagine vast blue lakes, snow-capped mountains reaching the clouds and huge glistening glaciers.

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The best way to reach there is on the TranzAlpine Scenic Railway from Christchurch to Greymouth. Activities include skydiving over Lake Wanaka or kayaking through its glassy waters; taking a helicopter ride onto Franz Josef glacier and hiking through blue ice or joining the skiers at Coronet Peak near Queenstown.

Where to stay

Wellington 
Take the more scenic route to the South Island on the cross-channel ferry from Wellington to Nelson. Overnight at Joyce’s B&B, run by friendly husband and wife duo Phil and Joyce. The large rooms are welcoming, with mattresses you’ll disappear into. A homemade breakfast is included and consists of freshly baked continental treats. Rooms start from NZ$175pn (£75).

Kaikoura 
Margaret and Nicky run a cosy Bayview Homestay, with double rooms and complimentary (and often home-grown/laid) breakfasts from NZD$125pn (£55).
Jane and Quentin at beautiful Nikau Lodge, Kaikoura have double rooms with a view from NZD$220pn (£95).

Otago Peninsula 
The view from Rachel and Kyle’s stunning Kaimata Retreat Lodge is the best in the area. Looking over the vast blue waters while sipping your morning coffee is pretty special. Ask Kyle to take you to the sea lions.

Catlins
Conveniently near the Southern Scenic Route and perfect for visiting the ample waterfalls, Catlins’ Retreat in Owaka is a pleasurable stay. Quite often, owner Robbie will invite you to have a home-cooked dinner with him, and with the unpredictable weather in winter, a Yunca fire, electric blankets and heaters are all provided. NZ$125pn (£55) for a queen room including continental breakfast.

The west coast 
Wanaka Springs Lodge owners John and Glynis have created a homely escape, complete with Jacuzzi over-looking Lake Wanaka, pillows you’ll melt into, private bathrooms and a great tradition of free drinks every evening from 6pm, so you can get to know fellow guests. Perfect after a day of kayaking or skiing. Rooms start from NZ$325pn (£140).

The deal

Avis offers weekly car hire from Queenstown airport from £258. To book, visit avis.co.uk or call 0808 284 5566.

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The TranzAlpine Scenic Railway will take you from Christchurch to Greymouth for $149 one-way

Skydive Wanaka offers tandem dives from NZ$329 (£140) for a 12ft jump.

Visit Purenewzealand.com

PHOTOGRAPHY: KAREN EDWARDS

[Written for Travel Eye, hosted on The Huffington Post UK, April 2015]

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