Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Perils and Pitfalls of Sperm Whale Tourism

               One thing I’ve enjoyed about spending a few weeks at the Dusty Lodge is that I’ve spent long enough in one place to get to know a different breed of New Zealand traveler.   This would be, the people who, like me, aren’t just travelling in New Zealand, but making a stab at actually living here.   Among the eight or so voluntary cleaners at the Dusty Lodge, there are a couple people who are staying in Kaikoura long-term, volunteering at the hostel for free accommodation, and working elsewhere in town.   Three of them are lads from Ireland, two of whom actually have permission to work here, and one who has as of last week overstayed his visa.   Allen and Derek work as waiters for local restaurants.   Carl works as a deckhand for the Paikea, a sperm-whale-watching tour boat.   His stories about his job have convinced me that sperm whale tourism must be one of the worst segments of the New Zealand tourism industry there is.    

               First of all, sperm whales hunt for food in deep water, so you never find them close to shore.   Just getting to where the whales are can be an hour-long boat ride out from shore.   And this isn’t an hour-long boat ride down a fjord, like in Seward.   In Kaikoura, it’s all open water, so there’s not much to look at except for the slowly receding shoreline.   Secondly, there’s sea swell for the entire length of the trip.   Sometimes, the Paikea’s percentage of seasick passengers hovers around 80%.   Then, once the Paikea finally gets out to where the whales are, the whole boat sits and waits.   In the sea swell.   For up to an hour.   Sperm whales dive so deeply, that they can be underwater for over an hour – which is longer than the boat can wait and still get back to the dock on time.   So it’s perfectly possible for a tour go to out, and be sitting right on top of a sperm whale that is chowing down on squid, but never actually see the whale.   If it’s a good tour, the boat catch a whale who’s just come up from a long dive, and he’ll hang out at the surface for a little while to catch his breath before he takes another deep dive.   If it’s a bad tour, no one will see a whale at all, and the whole boat goes back to Kaikoura disappointed, sick, and demanding refunds.   

            Carl’s stories do a lot to help me feel better about not getting the job with the dolphin-watching tour company – although our dolphins are a heck of a lot more visible than their sperm whales.   So, if you ever happen to be in Kaikoura… skip the sperm whale tourism.   Fork over the extra money, and go swimming with the dolphins instead.   You still might get seasick, but the dolphins will put on a much better show in the meantime.

            Jan is another friend from the Dusty Lodge; he’s an eighteen-year-old German guy, who came to New Zealand straight out of high school.   This is his first time living away from home.   He looks 25 and is approaching seven feet tall.    The best way to describe Jan is that he looks too big to fail.   He cleaned the hostel gutters out last week and didn’t need a ladder.   He’s just enormous – and not fat, either, just big.   Jan works as a lifeguard at the local pool. Most of his job seems to involve telling off kids for running.   Imagine for a moment if the lifeguard at your local pool were seven feet tall, and shouted in a thick German accent.   If I were a Kaikoura teenager, Jan would terrify me.   He sleeps in the bunk below mine; when he rolls over it feels like the entire bunkbed is in danger of shaking itself apart.

            Sally is a vegan chain-smoking yoga instructor, who is here on a visitor permit, and working illegally at the fish and chip shop up the road.   She’s been a volunteer at the hostel longer than anyone else, and is usually the person who sets up trips to the pub, or group excursions to the beach.   She’s also been offering yoga classes at the hostel in the afternoons after we finish cleaning.   Sarah also plays ukulele, and has been my jamming buddy for the past two weeks.   Interestingly, I’ve met more ukulele players in the past month than I have in the past five years.   I think because it’s so portable, it’s a big hit with backpackers.   

            Out of the six of us, Jan and I are the only two who actually have permission to work here.   We’ve also had four Malaysian travelers (all of whom have working visas) staying at Dusty for a week, and then moving on.   They’re looking for work, and not having much luck in finding it.   A good percentage of the people I’ve met on working holiday visas are Malaysian – they’re smart, educated, and have work experience – but for some of them, their English ability seriously limits their ability to find a job.   It was the same sort of thing in Scotland – I worked at a hotel in Shetland whose bar staff included two law students from Poland.    Here, a lot of travellers who can’t speak English well enough to get work elsewhere end up in agricultural work – packing kiwi fruit, or pruning grape vines, or planting sweet potatoes.    Some of it can be lucrative work, but from what I’ve heard, not all of the agricultural employers treat their workers very well. 

            When you’re moving around from hostel to hostel every few days, mostly the other people you meet are very temporary travellers – spending  a few weeks to a few months travelling around the country on a coach tour, or a discount bus pass.   Most of these folks will happily show you their skydiving videos, or give you their opinions on various bungee-jump operators in Queenstown.   These folks are great if you’re looking for recommendations for a good hostel in a certain town, but it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the fact that most of these guys are here to party, and I’m here to live.   So it was nice to get to stay in one spot long enough to actually meet some of the people who are, like me, living here.   

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