The Kaikoura canyon is 1000 m deep and is a food basket for many of the whale, dolphin and seabird species found in New Zealand's waters. Visiting the reserve is an unparalleled opportunity to see them up close, and often in large numbers.
The canyon is a side branch of the Hikurangi Trench, an underwater trough thousands of kilometres long extending northwards up the east coast of New Zealand and beyond.
Several small rivers and streams meet the ocean at or near Hikurangi Marine Reserve, bringing nutrients from the mountains to the sea. At the same time, the Southland Current brings cold water from the Southern Ocean and the East Cape Current brings warm water from the subtropics. These water masses converge off Kaikoura, creating a nutrient rich, highly productive environment which can support many marine mammals and seabirds.
A variety of marine mammals may be seen year-round at Kaikoura, though the region is best known for its sperm whales, dusky dolphins and New Zealand fur seals. The Kaikoura Canyon is the only place around New Zealand's mainland where the majestic sperm whale can be regularly found so close to shore.
Orca are regular visitors and humpback whales pass through on their northern winter migration. Many other whale species also visit the area from time to time. Large pods of dusky dolphins live in the vicinity of the Kaikura Canyon and small groups of Hector's dolphins are also found closer to shore.
New Zealand fur seals are widespread, with significant colonies at Ohua Point north of Kaikoura and on the peninsula. Many species of albatross, petrel, shearwater and prion gather at Kaikoura. Kaikoura is the only place in the world where Hutton's shearwaters breed.
Humpback whales pass through Kaikoura on their northern winter migration
Large pods of dusky dolphins live in the vicinity of the Kaikoura Canyon
The shoreline connection of the marine reserve is broadly representative of Kaikoura's southern rocky coastline. Three offshore islands (Panau Island and two smaller islets) are located just offshore.
Greywacke boulder and bedrock reefs dominate the shoreline, interspersed with small gravel/cobble beaches. Reefs extend sub tidally for several hundred metres or more offshore, often as patchy outcrops or as a mosaic of low relief reef with or without a veneer of silt or sand.
Amongst the offshore reef areas, and extending beyond, are areas of pebbles/gravels, coarse sand and, in deeper areas, mud. Muddy sediments dominate offshore, across the deeper parts of the continental shelf and down into the abyss of the Kaikoura Canyon. Patches of reef occur on the sides of the canyon where it is thought localised currents and the steep slope prevent the accumulation of sediment.
The remarkable Kaikoura coast offers many attractions for visitors
Kaikoura with the marine reserve in the background
Marine invertebrates and fish species
Encrusting and mobile invertebrates (including various molluscs, crustaceans, echinoderms, anemones and sponges) are common over the intertidal reefs, especially towards the lower shore. A rich seaweed community is also present, again increasing in abundance and diversity towards the lower shore where bull kelp forms a distinctive band.
Luxuriant stands of seaweeds – large brown seaweeds and red algae often forming a diverse understory – are conspicuous close to shore. Encrusting invertebrates (e.g. sponges, ascidians, anemones and hydroids) are also common, particularly deeper down where the seaweeds start to thin out.
Paua, kina and rock lobster are the most well known macro-invertebrates inhabiting the reefs; however, numerous other mobile species are also present including various starfish, molluscs and crustaceans. A common array of fish species inhabit coastal areas including butterfish, blue cod, tarakihi, marblefish, blue and red moki, sea perch, and several species of wrasse and triplefin.
While seafloor communities over the continental shelf are not well understood, more is known about the biota inhabiting the floor of the Kaikoura canyon where dense populations of large burrowing sea cucumbers, spoon worms, polychaete worms and urchins occur at depths of 900–1100 m.
Species such as hapuku, tarakihi, ling, hoki, lantern fish, and various sharks, rays, skates and squid inhabit the deeper waters. Benthic feeding fishes (notably rattails) are especially abundant in the depths of the Kaikoura canyon.
You should take the usual precautions by checking the marine weather forecast and telling a responsible person where you are going and when you expect to return.
There are no public facilities in the reserve, though small boats may be launched across the foreshore at Rosy Morn.
Marine reserve rules
While enjoying your visit to the Kaikoura region, remember that Hikurangi Marine Reserve is a no-take area. You may not remove or disturb any marine life within the reserve or take any other material including shells from the beach, water or seabed.
Take care around marine mammals both in and out of the water. If you see whales, dolphins or seals while boating or visiting the coast, there are a few simple rules which will ensure an enjoyable encounter for you and for them.
Read about sharing our coasts with marine mammals and remember, it is illegal to harm or disturb marine mammals.
See the marine reserves map and boundaries.