Kaikoura is a small coastal town on the north eastern coast of New Zealand's south Island. It is about 160 kms north of Christchurch (2 hours drive). In recent years it has become a hub for ecotourism, with whale, seal, dolphin and bird tours all available. It is not only the marine wildlife that draws the tourists, but the wonderful coastal scenery and the spectacular mountain backdrop. You don't necessarily need to take a pelagic to get close to the wildlife as there are some great spots close to town that are worth exploring. For instance there are usually New Zealand fur seals and shore birds found at the reserve on the tip of the Kaikoura peninsula. During my last visit I was able to approach to within a few metres of a blue penguin . The reason for all the marine activity is the nutrient rich 2km deep Kaikoura Canyon, that is only a few kilometres off shore.
The company that runs the pelagics is called Albatross Encounters. They offer several trips each day, with times varying slightly with the seasons. They do require a minimum number of people to book and favourable weather before any trip will proceed. A couple of benefits of using these operators are their excellent boats and very knowledgeable and helpful skippers/guides. On completion of the trip they will supply a list of all the species seen. They can also provide longer specialty trips if you can get enough interested people to take part.
Once on board the boat I always make my way to the rear on the same side as the skipper. I find this gives you the best arc of view and puts you on the same side that the skipper tends to favour. Obviously if this is not working for you in terms of light direction make your way to the other side without pushing too many tourists overboard. The trip lasts about 2 1/2 hours which, doesn't sound very long compared to many of the day trips offered in Australia, however given that it only takes about 20 minutes to get to where the action is, or even less if you happen to find a fishing boat closer in, it is more than adequate. Ideally you want to photograph the birds in the sky, which makes for a more dramatic shot. You need a stiff breeze to be blowing. When the fishing boats can't be relied on to get the bird interested and in close, the skipper puts out a block of netted frozen meat. This will bring the birds in with constant activity in the air and on the water. It's worth photographing birds on the water as you will probably find that you will miss all the different species if you concentrate on the sky.
A 300mm prime lens or 100-400mm zoom would be ideal focal range as you are going to get birds at a distance and very close. There is always a temptation to take the 500mm, however given that the photography is pretty much full on for two hours it is not really practical. I suppose you could always use it to intimidate the other passengers so that they keep out of your way.
Even when the weather is fine and the sea is relatively calm I always wear a parka as an outer layer to protect against the inevitable spray. If you are expecting to spend a fair bit of time at the rear of the boat expect a bit of water around your feet.
In situations like this where you are constantly having your background change from a dark sea to a bright sky along with dark and light birds, I find the quickest way to get reliable images is to work in manual mode. It is a steep learning curve, but worth it in the end. When you have mastered this method you need to adjust one dial at the most. Take plenty of test shots of various birds and fine tune your settings. Do this early. You may also find that your keeper rate improves if you concentrate on either dark or light coloured birds at one time, rather than constantly switching between the two. To make it even easier to narrow your exposure settings you can concentrate on shooting birds which have either the sea or the sky as a background (not always possible). Also try not to move about the boat too much but rather keep the angle of light in the same direction. Remember to check your histogram often and make any necessary adjustments. The angle of view is also important as it helps to see the bird coming, this gives you time to set the camera up.
The images in this article from top to bottom are: Kaikoura Range form the Peninsula, Salvin's Albatross, Blue Penguin, Cape Petrel, White-capped Albatross, Westland Petrel and Northern Royal Albatross.
During this recent couple of trips I managed to photograph the following birds:
Northern Royal Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross (Gibson's), Bullers Albatross, White-capped Albatross, Salvin's Albatross, Giant Northern Petrel, Westland Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Cape Petrel, Hutton's Shearwater, White-fronted Tern plus some of the common species.