New Zealand - Day 15 SEALS!! and wine

Our morning activity was to be seal-swimming up in Kaikoura. We had talked to the tour-guides the day before and they said they weren’t sure what conditions were going to be like so we should call around 8:30am to check. Of course, getting to Kaikoura required us to leave Christchurch at 6:30am, so we were going to show up no matter the conditions. We actually had some good driving conditions on the way up, as it was early enough that a majority of the trucks and camper vans were off the road, and since we were on Highway 1 (the biggest road in NZ) there were lots of passing lanes for us to get around the few slow vehicles we did encounter (like almost every other road in NZ, SH1 is one lane in either direction, so passing without an extra lane can be interesting).

Got into town a bit before 9am and checked-in at the seal swim office. It is a brother/sister run company and the sister was a bit pessimistic about our chance to see seals (due to the stormy weather that was potentially blowing in), but the brother who was going to be taking us out felt better about it. The excursion was not fully booked, only us and a German couple who were traveling with their mother(-in-law). The five of us got into our wetsuits and were fitted for masks and fins. We also had our waterproof case for our small camera and we set about getting that setup only to discover that we couldn’t actually fit the camera into the case. It was an older model camera with a new model case, but according to the website it was supposed to work. Nothing we could do about it, though, so we had no way to take photos in the water.

The first spot along the reef we stopped there was a single seal our splashing about, but by the time we were all over the side and into the water, it had decided we were too much bother and moved on. Back into the boat and we cruised down around the next bend in the reef to a bit of the bay that was more sheltered. There were a bunch of seals sunning themselves up on the rocks and we spotted one or two in the water. We all slipped over the edge of the boat and started moving towards the seals. The rules of swimming with the seals were pretty easy. Don’t touch the seals. Don’t swim directly toward the seals. Don’t make yourself taller than the seals (this is interpreted as a challenge and might lead to the seal kicking your ass). As the approached the seals, they evidently decided that we looked like a good time, so the next forty minutes were spent swimming around the protected area of the reef with the seals.

Seals are way more agile than humans could ever hope to be in the water, so you will only ever get as close to the seal as it wants you to get. And these guys were happy to get very close. I got stare into the (enormous) eyes of a seal from less than 6 inches a way. One of the younger/smaller ones delighted in playing chicken with me, so it would swim right at me until I flinched and then shoot away, probably laughing at me in its own seal way. They were also playing with each other and occasionally leaping out of the water right in front of us. The ocean here was no more than 10 feet deep and the bottom was covered in a luscious kelp forest filled with fish of all sizes, so even when the seals were busy elsewhere, there was lots to look at. It was fantastic.

I was the first one out of the water, because my poor circulation in my hands, combined with the lack of gloves, and the cold ocean water meant that I had started to lose feeling in my fingers. But this meant that I was able to snatch the camera out of the dry bag and shoot a couple shots of Beth out in the water with the seals. As the rest of the group swam back to the boat, the seals followed, evidently trying to encourage us to stay. Once everyone had gotten on the board, the seals decided we were no longer interesting and swam off to do their seal things. Back to the company offices where we had hot showers and then we were off to continue our journey.

The next stop was to be up in Blenheim and Renwick, the heart of Marlborough wine country, probably the most famous of the NZ wine regions. We had a map of the wineries we had printed off the official region website, but it proved to be 2 years out of date. The first two wineries we had picked to visit, both of which claimed to be open at 10am were in fact firmly shut when we arrived. We were a bit confused, so we just turned into the next winery that we saw that had an open sign, which was Giesen, even though it was not on our map at all. This proved fortuitous because even though their wine wasn’t that good, they had a copy of the 2013 winery map. Now why they never bothered to update the one on the website, I do not know, but this would prove to be a recurring pattern. Armed with our new map we proceeded to hit up Nautilus Estate and Wairau River in quick succession, though we were not particularly impressed with either. Every winery in this reason seemed concerned with making Pinot Noirs, but the style of Pinots they were making were not really not my taste.

After three wineries we were feeling somewhat disappointed, but them we stopped at Forrest. This was another mad scientist winery, similar to our experience up in Nelson, where the wine-maker made whatever he felt like with little regard to the conventions of the region. Their default tasting cost a few bucks and allowed you to choose 5 wines, but when you stick a list of 18 or so diverse and intriguing wines in front of me, I’m going to want to taste more than that. We ended up with a really good guy behind the counter guiding our tasting and as we talked with him about what we liked and didn’t, he kept pouring more and more wine for us. It all worked out in the end because we left with 4 bottles of wine, including their Chenin Blanc and at least one of their desert wines. One of our favorite wine stops on the whole trip.

Next was Gibson Bridge, which was the Pinot Gris ’specialist’ of the region ,which seemed to mean that they made a multitude of mediocre Pinot Gris. We had had far better interpretations of that grape down in Central Ortago and their tiny tasting room got pretty crowded as more people kept showing up, so we fled as soon as we were able. The last two stops were two of the bigger wineries in the area, Cloudy Bay and Drylands. Cloudy Bay was pretty nice and I think we ended up with a bottle of something there (we currently have more than 2 cases of wine going, so without pulling out all the bottles to look at them, it is hard to remember what we’ve got), but Drylands was pretty disappointing. It was still before 5pm, so we tried to hit Saint Clair and Allan Scott, which both technically closed at 5, but both places turned us away. We were not pleased, but decided that their wine most likely sucked anyway.

Post wine-tasting we checked into the backpackers we were staying at (in Renwick) and then drove down into Blenheim for dinner. We got some decent Thai food and then since it was St. Patrick’s Day, we walked down the street to the local Irish pub and had a beer for traditions sake. Or at least, I had an Irish beer for traditions sake and Beth had a local IPA because she wanted something hoppy. There was some fun live music so we stuck around for a little while longer before walking back to the car and driving back to Renwick to end our night. Once again, surprisingly enough, we had to be up early.

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