Majestic Creatures

Whale Watch Kaikoura

New Zealand may be the land of the long white cloud, bubbling mud pools and steaming geysers, but look to the sea for one of the country’s most magnificent attractions…

Witnessing whales frolicking in the pristine waters surrounding Kaikoura, located just two and a half hours drive north from Christchurch, is all in a day’s work for Whale Watch Kaikoura. Founded from the midst of a community’s struggle, today Whale Watch Kaikoura is widely regarded as being New Zealand’s premier whale watching company. “We can do up to 16 tours per day in the peak season which is from November through to April,” says Chief Operating Officer Kauahi Ngapora. “Our skippers have very good local knowledge. We use sighting data from previous days; we communicate with local fishermen, planes and helicopters.”

With tours operating 365 days a year (weather permitting) and a 95 per cent success rate of seeing a whale, Whale Watch brings tourists from around the world up close to these remarkable marine giants.

Honourable Heritage

Whale Watch Kaikoura is a multi-award winning operation combining a strong commitment to conservation with serving the local community. In 1990, Whale Watch won the New Zealand Tourist Industry Federation Award and since then, the company has been the recipient of over ten prestigious awards. The World Travel and Tourism Council gave Whale Watch the Tourism for Tomorrow Community Benefit Award in 2010. More recently, Whale Watch was a finalist for the People’s Choice for Responsible Tourism Award at the World Responsible Tourism Awards. “Being named a finalist in any awards is fantastic and we take great honour in getting to those positions,” comments Mr Ngapora. “I think it’s good for our staff, it just really acknowledges the hard work that they do and it is important for raising the profile of the business, particularly when it’s as important an award as The World Responsible Tourism Awards.”

Guided by traditional Maori philosophy, Whale Watch Kaikoura represents New Zealand ecotourism at its best. Whales have been at the heart of Maori culture from long ago. There are stories that have been passed down from generation to generation telling of the sacred connection between whales and humans. The movie ‘Whale Rider’ released in 2002, is based on the ancient Maori legend of Paikea who was rescued from his jealous, murderous half brother by a whale. And for the families who founded Whale Watch Kaikoura, these majestic creatures proved to be the answer to their troubles.

The Kaikoura economy took a hit back in the early 1980s when the railways were privatised. Mr Ngapora estimates that 95 per cent of the local Maori population were left unemployed by the move. With high levels of unemployment came an increase in crime, failure in the education system and drug use in the community. Four local Maori families mortgaged their houses to start Whale Watch Kaikoura in 1987. “Those four families that founded the company were lead by a gentleman by the name of Bill Solomon,” says Mr Ngapora. “They took a big risk trying to establish a business that would, in the beginning, primarily provide employment for local Maori and also create an economic base for the tribe.”

Authentic Experiences

While a lot may have changed since the early days of Whale Watch Kaikoura, the company remains 100 per cent Maori owned, incorporating many traditional values and beliefs within its operation. The majority shareholder of Whale Watch is the Tukete Charitable Trust representing the four founding families, and the minority shareholder is Ngāi Tahu Holdings Ltd, the commercial arm of the major South Island tribe. The importance of family and community is at the foundation of Maori culture. “As a Maori owned business, we have a real focus on the long term with an intergenerational outlook,” remarks Mr Ngapora who worked on a Whale Watch catamaran before moving into the office. “We’re here to build the business up to a strong position so it’s ready for when the next generation comes in to take over. We’re here to try and bring some of our young people into the business, giving them skills, training them up and trying to build them up within the company to one day, hopefully, take a leadership position or move on to their own endeavours because they’ve built up enough confidence working in this business to do that.”

Along with family and community, hospitality (manaakitanga) and the guardianship or conservation of the land (kaitiakitanga) are key concepts in Maori culture. For guests who would like a bite to eat before or after their day out on the water, Whale Watch owns Flukes Café and Wine Bar. Nestled right on the beach with breathtaking views of the mountain ranges overlooking the sea, Flukes is the best place in town to grab a steaming hot coffee with a homemade cake. Enjoy one of the daily blackboard specials and choose from the selection of fine wines available. The gift shop is also convenient for guests who forgot to bring along their sunglasses, motion sickness tablets and batteries for the camera in all the excitement. Located adjacent to the reservations office, the gift shop has a great selection of souvenirs including New Zealand made items, books, clothing, DVDs, postcards and more – but by far, the best souvenirs that guests take home are the memories of their day.

Whale Watch welcomes guests from all over the world onboard a modern fleet of five specially outfitted catamarans featuring spacious, air conditioned interiors. There is informative onboard commentary, award winning wildlife animations, plenty of comfortable seating and plasma screens. All Whale Watch vessels are equipped with HamiltonJet propulsion units to prevent sea mammals being injured from exposed propellers and to minimise noise. Whale Watch sponsors environmental research, working closely with scientists to carefully monitor the effects of commercial whale watching and help conserve marine life.

Aboard the vessels and out to sea, the most common types of whales that passengers spot are Giant Sperm Whales. Rarer sightings include the Humpbacks, Minke, Beaked and Southern Right Whales as well as pods of Orca or Killer Whales, which contrary to popular belief, are not actually whales. Upon seeing a whale for the first time, some passengers are so touched that they get tears in their eyes.

Naturally Challenging

The pristine waters of Kaikoura harbour a rich biodiversity of marine life. Besides whales, Kaikoura is home to graceful pods of dolphins. Fur seals and four different species of penguins dot the rocky coastline. Look up at the sky to see the many different seabird species catching the breeze. Nature can be very unpredictable and in the unlikely circumstance that a whale is not sighted on a tour, Whale Watch has an 80 per cent refund policy in place. “If you don’t see a whale on a tour we guarantee to refund 80 per cent of your fare,” explains Mr Ngapora. “I think the most amazing and the most challenging part of the business is nature because a lot of factors we can control, we can develop strategies or initiatives to try to improve but when you’re dealing with wildlife, if they want to be seen they’ll be seen.”

Around 80 per cent of Whale Watch passengers are international tourists, many of whom come from landlocked cities. They may have to travel up to 500 kilometres just to get to the beach, so being out on the water surrounded by all different sorts of marine life is a thrilling, educational experience. The safety and comfort of passengers is the primary concern for the experienced Whale Watch crews who constantly monitor changing sea and weather conditions. “The weather plays a massive role in the type of experience we can deliver on any day so for our operation I think wildlife and the weather are two of the most challenging factors,” reflects Mr Ngapora. “I guess that from a business perspective, tourism always has its challenges.”

Many popular tourist destinations around the world have been stricken by terrorism, political unrest and natural disasters in recent times. Regional tourism in New Zealand ground to a halt following the devastation of the Christchurch earthquake back in February 2011 and the aftershocks. “The Christchurch earthquake had a significant impact, particularly on the Canterbury region which was and still is the gateway to the South Island.” The tourists have steadily been returning and Christchurch has been given a new lease on life. Mr Ngapora is pleased to see that people are regaining confidence in New Zealand and that Christchurch’s tourism industry is on the rebound. “Whale Watch sees the community as being a place where most of us were brought up; it’s where we were born and where we live so a big focus for us is trying to better our community. This year is looking really good and we just hope that the rebirth of the city continues.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 19, 2018, 8:05 PM AEST