Jan 18, 2013 - Oceanic Discoverer
Akaroa, South Island
Dropping down onto the Banks Peninsula by motor coach early this morning we were greeted by an incredible view of the lovely town of Akaroa, bathed in dappled light and light rain. The Banks Peninsula has a checkered history of settlement. Captain Cook first sighted it in 1770 and thought it was an island. He named it after Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist aboard the Endeavour.
In 1838 Jean Langlois, a French whaling captain, purchased the peninsula from local Maori. He returned to France to set up a company and brought back 63 French settlers in 1840, but literally only days before, panicked British officials had raised the British flag at Akaroa and claimed British sovereinty under the Treaty of Waitangi. To avoid conflict, each of the French families were given 5 acres of land and a promise of safe return passage if, after two years, they found conditions unacceptable. They all chose to stay, and to this day Akaroa has a decidedly Franco feel evidenced in street names and local businesses.
This morning we split our group as many chose to visit a traditional New Zealand farm at Paua Bay, where sheep, cattle, and deer are all raised for human consumption. Seventh generation farmer Murray Johns regaled us with stories of what farming life is like here on the South Island. Murray’s daughter-in-law Hannah then took us to the wool shed to demonstrate the proper way to sheer a sheep!
Akoroa is also perhaps the best place in all of New Zealand to reliably see one of the smallest marine mammals on Earth; the Hector’s Dolphin. This dimunitive dolphin (only 4 to 5 feet long and weighing less than 130 pounds) is the only endemic cetacean to be found in New Zealand. Over the course of the last few decades the population of this tiny animal has been severely stressed, with an estimated population in 1970 of 26,000 dropping to some 7,200 individuals today. While the sightings of this beautiful little dolphin brought us joy and elation, we are reminded of our own responsibilities of stewardship for our planet.
As we laft Akaroa aboard the Oceanic Discoverer late in the afternoon Hector’s dolphins escorted us from the mouth of the bay into the open Pacific Ocean. A swell had built and we thrilled at “catching waves” on the bow! To top off a perfectly lovely day Captain Gary Wilson called out the sighting of a whale, but not any old whale, this turned out to be a blue whale, the largest animal to have ever inhabited our planet. From the largest to the smallest we can truly say we have had a whale of a day!