New Zealand Wildlife

Why choose a flight to go whale watching in Kaikoura?

Kaikoura is one of those must places to visit in New Zealand. Although I love all of New Zealand so maybe I am just biased! If you’ve not heard of Kaikoura, let me tell you a bit about it. You’ve got snow topped mountains, rolling green hills and stunning coastal walks. But what makes it different to the rest of idyllic New Zealand? It has the deepest ocean closest to their main land. And this means whale watching in Kaikoura is one of the most popular tourist attractions to do there.

whale watching in Kaikoura is one of the most popular tourist attractions to do there.

But there are two options for seeing these beautiful creatures so which one do you choose?

  • Option 1 – Boat tour
  • Option 2 – Flight tour

My decision was slightly influenced by my brother on this occasion. He called to enquire and within minutes we were booked on own chartered flight.  I’m not exaggerating, my sister and I had ordered a coffee and cake when he ran back to say they were picking us up in 10 minutes!

The deep pinky/purple colour in the top right shows deepest point.

Whale watching in Kaikoura from a plane

Our booking was with Air Kaikoura, they picked us up and took us to the small air strip a few miles away. Our lovely guide Terry explained to us why whale watching  in Kaikoura is so good. Basically, there’s a deep canyon very close to the mainland.
NZ 2011 2072
The Kaikoura Canyon is a submarine canyon situated 500 metres off the coast to the south-east of the peninsula. It is 60 km long and up to 1200 m deep. It merges into a deep ocean channel that stretches for hundreds of kilometres. This means it’s great for seeing marine life, including dolphins and whales. You can also swim with dolphins too. That was the following day’s activity!

There’s a demonstration how to put on a life vest on. And then we are off. Climbing into the back of the tiny plane. It has 4 seats so one for each of us and then the pilot. Next we put on our big headsets to protect our ears and to communicate during the flight.

One thing I had not factored in when booking the whale watching flight in Kaikoura was the bonus of the scenic flight. The air strip is parallel to the ocean. From one window you can see the vast ocean and the other the beautiful green hills and snow-capped mountains beyond.

Whale watching in Kaikoura
Smiles all round :).

Just the flight is exciting. I know most of us have all been in planes before but this mini plane is such a unique experience. You can see from the big grins on our faces what an amazing time we were having. I was busy admiring the view that I had forgotten that we were on a whale watching tour!

What are the chances of seeing a Sperm whale?

Back to the whale watching. So no flight ever guarantees that you will see a whale (it’s about 95% chance so pretty high). But the beauty of being in a plane is that you can cover such a vast area and pretty quickly. Also the tour companies work with each other and let each other know when a whale has surfaced.

A call came over the radio there was a pod of 200-300 dusky dolphins so our pilot flew us straight there. We could see the tiny dots splashing around. It was great to see them over such a huge area. Sometimes there are pods of over 1000. Wow that would be amazing to see!

there was a pod of 200-300 dusky dolphins

Another call comes in on the radio, it’s a whale. At last! We fly over to the spot but just in time to see the whale dive and his tail disappear back into the deep ocean. The whales dive for between 30 minutes and 2 hours so we’ll have to find another whale on this trip.

Soon after another radio call comes through. This is it, another whale has just surfaced. A 17 metre sperm whale, wow it is a wonderful sight. From seeing the tiny dolphins earlier you get a good perspective of his size.
NZ 2011 2099

So we have an even better view of the whale our awesome pilot does circles around the whale. We are almost on full tilt, which is pretty exciting in itself, hold on to your stomachs! It’s like being on a fairground ride but I was so focused on watching the whale I didn’t really think about it. The pilot circles in the other direction to give my sister a good view as well.

The whale stays on the surface for about 5-6 minutes, which is plenty of time for photos. Then we watch him prepare to dive back down and his tail is the last thing then he’s gone.

The whale stays on the surface for about 5-6 minutes

We went back via the Kaikoura Peninsula, another fantastic view and then a very smooth landing. Such a great experience and one I would highly recommend.
NZ 2011 2121

You might like to read: 15 awesome wildlife experiences for animal lovers

Whale watching in Kaikoura by plane or boat?

  • The flight is shorter (30 minutes) but this does leave you with the rest of the day to explore.
  • Cost* – similar prices for either option ($150 NZD – boat tour and $145/$165 NZD for flight).
  • No sea sickness! Although my tummy did turn when we circled the whale but this lasted seconds.
  • A chance to see the full size of the whale from the air.
  • Additional scenic flight time on the way out and back.
  • Personal experience – there’s only 3 seats and the pilot!

*Prices correct at time of writing.

Have you been to New Zealand? Did you go whale watching in Kaikoura or are you booking your trip? Tell me about your experience or ask me any questions in the comments below:

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Are you visiting New Zealand soon? Read about whale watching in Kaikoura via a flight tour. A beautiful place to visit so add it to your itinerary now!

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Comments (25)

  1. This is so cool! I think I’d agree with you and totally take the flight. I LOVED Kaikoura when I went but we weren’t there for any length of time so I didn’t do any whale watching, but if I went back I would totally do this!

  2. Great post. I think whale watching in a plane is much less intrusive than on a boat. Great shot of the whale, much better view than if you’d of been on a boat.

    1. Thanks Aysha. Yes very true although I hadn’t really thought about that point of view as well. I think the whales just surface where ever they feel like it! Yes the only shot I wouldn’t have got from the air would be if it ha breached from the water but I don’t think that’s very common

  3. Ha! I love how your brother ran off to book this so quickly!

    First off, New Zealand looks incredible!! I would so love to go… I swear my travel wish list is just getting longer and longer!

    Anyway, whale watching from above is definitely a different way to do it, and must have been awesome to see the whales from a different pespective!

    I once went dolphin watching in Madeira (aboard a catamaran) – that was awesome too, as the dolphins were rubbing their bellies against the edges of the boat as they were swimming along, so we got to see them really up close!!

    However, I’ve just scrolled down and seen another comment about it being less intrusive from up above, and that’s a totally fair point! I’d not thought of that before, but I think now I will in future.

    1. Ha ha I know he was so funny. Yes Justine, New Zealand is absolutely amazing I loved it so much. Your list sounds a bit like mine, it just keeps growing and growing ha ha!

      It’s wonderful to see them from above but to be honest I don’t think the boats really disturb them that much. I’m not an expert but the whales come up where they choose to in the ocean and I know the boats do keep a distance from them, although not much they can do if the whales surface right next to the boat! I had this when I was gorilla trekking when we were told to keep a distance but then the gorillas just did their own thing!!

  4. This is the 1st time I heard about whale watching by flight and I love the look of it! Will definitely take note of it

  5. Nice post and amazing pictures. I like the idea of whale watching by plane. It is better than a boat because they also not got disturbed and one can watch from distance.

  6. This is a lie. Fake photo. We took a whale watching flight that flew so high the whale was a dot in the ocean. Didn’t want to”disturb” the poor whale

  7. Wow! I didn’t realise you could go whale-watching by plane, but it makes absolute sense. I’ve been whale-watching from a boat, but it’s so hard to actually see the whales; so much better from above, especially when you can get down low. I also knew Kaikoura was famous for whale-watching but not the reason why, which is cool to find out. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This is so cool! And for the same price I agree taking the flight is better than boats, and you don’t bother them as much too! I’ve never been to NZ but this shall be on my bucketlist! 🙂

  9. New Zealand looks amazing ! It’s on my bucket list for such a long time… I would so love to go 🙂 . Great shot of the whale from the the air ! Whale watching from a plane is definitely a different way to do it, and it is awesome to see the whales from a different pespective !

  10. I don’t know why but I would never think of using a plane to whale watch. But now that I think about it, that is a great idea. Not only can you see the whales but there is no sea sickness which is my arch enemey. Would love to do this for myself. Thanks!!!

  11. I’ve been swimming with seals in Kaikoura, but haven’t gotten the chance to see any whales there. Hopefully, I’ll be heading back up there during spring and can hop on a plane then. I had no idea there were sperm whales, I thought it was just humpbacks!! And how incredible it would be to be able to see the full size of it from the air. You’ve sold me!

  12. Wow that’s amazing! I would never have thought of doing it via flight, but it’s such a good way of seeing things in New Zealand when distances can be vast!

  13. Oh my goodness this looks awesome! I hadn’t even considered doing a scenic flight! This sounds like a perfect way to spend a morning (if we can afford it!)

    Thank you for sharing it!

    1. Ah you’re welcome Josy. I hope you have an amazing time and hopefully you will get the chance to do the flight. You can also swim with wild dolphins too which is amazing, I still haven’t had the chance to write about the experience!