The small town of KAIKOURA, 130km south of Blenheim and 180km north of Christchurch, enjoys a spectacular setting in the lee of the Kaikoura Peninsula, wedged between the mountains and the ocean. Offshore, the sea bed drops away rapidly to the kilometre-deep Kaikoura Canyon, a phenomenon that brings sea mammals in large and varied numbers. Whale watching and swimming with dolphins are big business here, and the presence of expectant tourists has spawned a number of eco-oriented businesses offering swimming with seals, sea kayaking and hiking.
Kaikoura got its name when an ancient Maori explorer who stopped to eat crayfish found it so good he called the place kai (food) koura (crayfish). Maori legend also accounts for the extraordinary coastline around Kaikoura. During the creation of the land, a young deity, Marokura, was given the job of finishing the region. First, he built the Kaikoura Peninsula and a second smaller peninsula (Haumuri Bluff). Then he set about creating the huge troughs in the sea between the two peninsulas, where the cold waters of the south would mix with the warm waters of the north and east. Realizing the depth of Marokura’s accomplishment, the god Tuterakiwhanoa said that the place would be a gift (koha) to all those who see its hidden beauty – and it is still known to local Maori as Te Koha O Marokura.
The Ngai Tahu people harvested the wealth of the land and seas until Te Rauparaha and his followers decimated them, in around 1830. The first Europeans to settle were whalers who came in the early 1840s, swiftly followed by farmers. The trials and tribulations of their existence are recorded in the Kaikoura Museum and the more evocative Fyffe House. Kaikoura ticked on quietly until the late 1980s when whale watching really took off and put the place on the tourism map. Since then it has steadily expanded, becoming more commercial, though without losing its small-town feel.