Earthquakes, whales and crayfish have a long history in this small east coast settlement. With two mountain ranges behind it and a canyon of epic proportions offshore, it is a marine wonderland.
I have been to Kaikōura many times since the 1970s, though the majority of my trips have been in the last 20 years; we often stop in the area as we have friends who live there, and it is the ideal halfway point between Picton and Christchurch, our usual ultimate destination. But I am ashamed to admit I haven’t ever really looked at the history of the area, explored the local museum, or looked much further than the area’s main tourism attractions of whale watching trips, and kayaking adventures.
On a recent 10-day house-sitting trip we were in town long enough to really explore, and we found the new crayfish-pot-shaped Civic building on the main street, home to the Kaikōura Museum, sometimes described as a ‘mini Te Papa’ I am told. The museum collection began life in 1971 and was originally housed in a building that served as a Gospel Hall at one point in its life – it was apparently packed to the gunnels with donated collectibles.
Eventually someone recognised the value of the collection and generated a groundswell of support for the establishment of a purpose-built space created to display the collection in all its glory. Through the efforts of many volunteers, working closely with the community and council, the new building was constructed – to the latest building codes – and it withstood the earthquake when it hit just a few days before the grand opening. Fortunately, with the building being new and built to strict codes, and placement of the display items being carefully thought out, damage from the earthquake was actually minimal, and the museum had it’s grand opening on November 19, just five days after the earthquake.
There is a lot of history in this region from ancient dinosaur, plesiosaur and mosasaur fossils through to the 10,000 or so Māori who lived in the area for hundreds of years, and all are represented by displays and information in the museum. The collection of Māori taonga items highlights the skill of the people; utensils and implements made from bone, wood and rock sit beside wonderful examples of textiles and crafts designed over generations.
In the early 1840s the first registered European, Scotsman Robert Fyffe, established a whaling station, that became one of seven built along the coast. Whaling crews came from Britain, North America, France, Germany, Hawaii and India and of course they mixed with the local Māori wāhine, marrying them and settling down in the area. Farming became a bigger player in the economy of the region as the southern right whales were hunted nearly to extinction. Humpback and sperm whales fared a lot better numerically but hunting for those ended in the early 20th century. Commercial whaling went on in New Zealand waters until 1964, though not from this location.