The sky glowed orange behind the dark silhouette of Kapiti Island. In the foreground the sea appeared unruffled while out on the southern horizon the South Island was a mere smudge.
We were strolling back along Paekakariki beach, having turned at the creek which trickled out of Queen Elizabeth Park. We watched two late swimmers stroking towards the shore, their arms lifting gold sparkles as they neared the water’s edge. Their dog was leaping ecstatically at seagulls that were wheeling round a dead fish. The tide was high in places, lapping against the eroded grass strip so we were forced to jump on to the coastal road. This did not stop us, however, from admiring the lingering sunset and the path of orange light zigzagging across the water of Cook Strait.
As we drew near to the Surf Club we noticed a large gathering of people on the beach. Some had left their parked cars. Everyone was looking out to sea. What were they looking at? Two kayakers drew close to the shore but there was nothing unusual in their paddling. A loud murmur spun round the crowd “There they are!” “Can you see them?” “Where are they?” Some were pointing to the southern end of Kapiti where three islets merged into the darkness of the island. Then Peter spotted the whales.
A pod of humpback whales was travelling from the warm South Pacific Ocean, where they had given birth, to the colder Antarctic. They were making leisurely progress down the inland side of the island. Old hands knew that it was an annual event but this season they were more numerous and the flaming sunset made their passage more dramatic.
“Can you see the babies?” asked Stephanie, Jacqui Baxter’s granddaughter. But the pod was too far away to distinguish their little, dark shapes. Once the leading whales had spouted, they drifted again into shadows. The crowd on the beach sighed and dispersed, shepherding the younger children round the departing cars.
The sky was now drained of colour and misty black clouds fringed Kapiti Island.