Nā Adrienne Rewi
All Images Courtesy of Whale Watch, Kaikōura
The sleepy little east coast South Island town of Kaikōura hasn’t looked back since the day five local Maori families set up Whale Watch back in 1987. In the business’s first year of operation (1989) they carried 3,000 passengers with just one boat. Today they operate more than four boats and they take over 100,000 people a year out on the changeable Kaikōura waters in the hope of spotting one of the visiting whales. On paper it may have seemed like a long shot but today you have to admire the original Māori families who put their homes up as collateral to secure enough money to get started. They raised $90,000 and most of that went on the boat. Today they still own 51% of the company as a charitable trust, with the balance of shares held by Ngāi Tahu. Whale Watch expanded rapidly and keeping pace with the explosive growth has been their biggest challenge.
In 1994 Wally Stone joined Whale Watch as managing director, signalling a whole new mindset for the organisation. New boats, refined approaches and a strategic growth plan all cemented Whale Watch as the town’s most enterprising asset, which has fed close to $2-million back into the community. In 1989 there were five tourist operators in town, including Whale Watch. Now there are over 45, plus accommodation providers, shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants. There is a brand new supermarket and where other small towns in New Zealand are losing their banks, Kaikōura has three – not bad for a town with a population of just 3,500. And today the old railway hums to a different tune – the frenetic comings and goings of over 700 Whale Watch passengers a day – and Whale Watch, now one of New Zealand’s leading tourism experiences, is a keen supporter and sponsor of local marae, schools, sports teams and community groups.
For those involved it was always about setting up a new economic base for the town when the railways moved out. Almost every Māori family in town had someone employed by the railway and their closing was a big loss to the community. It is fitting that Māori led the charge in the revitalisation of the town. Māori legend tells us that Kaikōura is the spot where Maui placed his foot to steady himself while he ‘fished up’ the North Island. Archaeological remains found there, indicate that around 900 years ago the peninsula was inhabited by moa hunters; and early Māori settlements were established in response to the region’s abundant food sources. Whale Watch today serves as the perfect reminder of what can be achieved when a small community takes charge of its own destiny; and what happens when the natural world is revered rather than exploited. www.whalewatch.co.nz