17 Nov 2017

One Year Done: Hope comes dressed in high-vis

Lynette Buurman, co-director, Encounter Kaikoura.
8:00 am on 18 November 2017

Looking back a year later to the day the dolphins came back, Encounter Kaikōura co-director Lynette Buurman says it was a moment she’ll never forget.

In the footage from about a week after the quake, a solitary sooty shearwater skims above the sea, its wingtip not quite touching the surface.

Then a fin appears, and another and another, until the water around the boat is swarming with sleek dark bodies, the surface a churn of white.

When the first of 300 dusky dolphins propels itself from the water, the hearts of those on board leapt with it.

"We were all in tears actually, because we didn't know what to expect - we didn't know what the canyon system may have endured out there with all the uplift and the shaking, and for us to find marine mammals still frolicking around as if nothing had happened, was just incredible," Ms Buurman says.

While the dolphins have stuck around, though, getting out to them and the whales has been a challenge for Kaikōura’s wildlife tour operators.

Most of the Encounter Kaikōura and Whale Watch vessels have spent the year sitting on land, after coastal uplift left the town’s harbour at South Bay unusable for all but the smallest boats.

"The earth cannot move that much without consequences," Buurman says.

"The launching ramp just suddenly ran out of ramp."

Within days of the earthquake, the effects for the business were clear. An entire summer of bookings was suddenly threatened with cancellation - either because Encounter couldn’t launch most of its boats, or because tourists couldn’t even reach Kaikōura.

With some smaller boats back in the water after Christmas and sketchy access to the town restored via the Inland Road, they somehow managed to scrape through summer with about 60 percent of their normal business.

“The commitment of people to travel here despite the roadworks and delays is just astonishing,” Buurman says.

Winter has been dire, though.

“We’ll be lucky to have achieved 30 percent of our normal business,” Buurman says.

Insurance and wage subsidies from the government have allowed Encounter to keep its 35 permanent staff.

“That meant we could make decisions about staff... and not have to let anyone go before we were sure if we could operate.”

'You forget the hardship'

It’s still been the hardest year Buurman’s endured.

“There’s been times this year that I’ve felt really flat and overwhelmed about what’s ahead of us.”

Swimming with dolphins with Encounter Kiakoura

Dolphins return to the harbour. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

All around her she’s watched as fellow residents’ lives “tumble into a heap”.

“We all need hope and to believe that we’re all doing something positive and worthwhile, and... all of that is stalled in an event like this.”

Hope in Kaikōura now comes dressed in hi-vis. Second only to the road rebuild is the re-opening of the harbour this week, dredged and blasted so that fishing and tour boats can head out along the coast again.

Summer bookings are looking healthy and seasonal staff are starting to trickle back, Buurman says.

“You forget the hardship.”

Problems still lie ahead. With accommodation taken up by rebuild workers, summer staff are struggling to find housing - and tourists keen to return to the seaside town may struggle to find a bed, too.

“Our local council is just facing this massive gap in funding to try and get us back together,” Buurman says.

“There’s still so much to be done ahead of us. You’ve got to endure - you’ve really just got to push on.

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