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Colin Skinner
My Adventure with
Sea Life in Kaikoura
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In Kaikoura, hazy mountains reach down to the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean — and I was about to swim with the dolphins! We had been instructed how to entertain dolphins — splash around, make strange noises through your snorkel, and amuse the dolphins by showing what terrible swimmers humans are. But it was all to go unused. As we headed out to sea in a small boat, the guide for the Wildlife Centre received a message on the radio: swimming with the dolphins was off — there was a pack of killer whales in the bay!

In no time we saw the killer whales. Two large black and white shapes cut the surface of the choppy water, and a smaller baby followed behind. In all, there were ten killer whales heading south through the bay in a line. As we sped over the waves we saw a lone New Zealand fur seal, keeping still as the killer whales passed by. For the seal it was a lucky day. About 20 dusky dolphins appeared ahead of the killer whales. The dolphins were moving fast, as dolphins are a favorite food for killer whales. On the radio, we heard that this was a decoy group of dolphins. Most of the dolphins in the area had headed out to sea. The whole drama was fascinating to watch.

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That same day I did get to swim with the New Zealand fur seals. Long seaweed called kelp grew from the white rocks where the seals basked in the sun. To cool off, the seals waddled up to the edges of the rocks, then slid into the water. With snorkel, mask, wetsuit, flippers, and an underwater camera, I dropped off the back of the boat into the sea. As I bobbed about in the swell, I looked beneath me to see two huge seals gliding effortlessly around each other. Silver bubbles of air rose from their thick furry coats as they swam close to check me out. Staring into their deep brown eyes underwater was amazing. At one point, a seal swam straight towards me and I cringed, thinking it would hit me. At the last minute it veered away and was gone. Up on the rocks, males barked and squabbled over their territory, but in the sea they were sociable and friendly.

At Kaikoura, the water near the shore is very deep, and sea currents bring nutrients from these depths up to the surface. A rich food chain can be found here, beginning with microscopic plants, which feed microscopic animals, which feed fish — all the way up to the marine mammals, such as the giant sperm whales. Male sperm whales, which grow to 18 meters in length, come to Kaikoura to feed on the rich food source. To them, Kaikoura is like a fast-food stop-off, as they travel from the cold waters of the Antarctic to warm waters of the tropics. The sperm whales' favorite food is giant squid, but they also eat many types of fish. They even swallow small sharks!

The whales were beautiful to see, with huge spurts of water and arching gray backs. For ten minutes they gulped air through a blow-hole on the top of their head, then dived down to feed. Sperm whales can stay submerged for over an hour, using oxygen stored in their huge volume of blood and muscle tissue for respiration to stay alive.

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The sea teems with life at Kaikoura. In a small rockpool, I saw fish, crabs, shrimp, an isopod (a seagoing creature related to wood lice), shellfish, anemones, and starfish. There was also a chiton, an ancient segmented shellfish with a scaly skirt of flesh, which roved over the rocks feeding on weeds. On the rocks were gulls, pied shags, and many other seabirds. A rich variety of life thrives in this incredible place.

Dr. Scott Baker grew up in Alabama, but now heads a laboratory researching marine mammals of the oceans around New Zealand. He took some time to talk to me and answer questions that school students had sent by e-mail.

To learn more about sea life, I spoke with Dr. Scott Baker, a biologist studying marine mammals around New Zealand. You can read my interview with Dr. Baker in which I asked him questions students sent me by e-mail.

Dolphin and killer whale photos: ©Doug O'Callahan, Kodak Express, West End, Kaikoura, New Zealand.

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