The name Kaikōura means 'eat crayfish', recalling the occasion when Tama ki te Raki had a meal of crayfish here, pausing on his journey around the South Island in pursuit of his three runaway wives
The peninsula, providing abundant food and shelter, is rich in over 800 years of Māori tradition. The earliest Māori hunted moa and sheltered in coastal caves. A grave found in the 1850s revealed the skeleton of a man holding the largest complete moa egg ever discovered and a pakohe (argillite) adze. As moa numbers declined, gardening became more important and settlements more permanent.
Fortifications were built on hilltops as lookout points and for shelter in case of attack. There are at least fourteen pā sites on the peninsula, most of which were occupied for short periods only and witnessed some fierce battles. Today Ngai Tahu occupy the area at Takahanga Marae in the township.
Both Māori and Pakeha have found Kaikōura ideal for settlement, relying on the bountiful harvest of food from the ocean and the shelter afforded by the peninsula.
The whaling industry attracted the earliest European settlers to the area. Whales occur here because of the unusually deep waters close to shore. Some whales pause in their migration from feeding grounds in Antarctic waters to breeding grounds in the warm sub-tropical seas of the Pacific Ocean, north of New Zealand. Robert Fyffe established the first shore-whaling station, Waiopuka, in 1843; other stations were built soon after in South Bay.
Due to the pressure of the whaling industry, whale numbers steadily declined after 1850 and it became uneconomic to exploit them. Today, with marine mammals in New Zealand being fully protected, the whales again find Kaikōura a safe environment. Kaikōura is now internationally renowned as a whale-watching location.
Fyffe House, standing on piles made from whalebone vertebrae, provides a link with Kaikōura’s whaling days. It was built by George Fyffe in 1860 and is situated on the way to the northern end of the Walkway. The house is a Historic Places Trust property and is open to the public.
For many years, the town’s main link with the outside world was its official port of entry; now, all that remains of the former customhouse is an old brick chimney near Fyffe House. Because the overland routes and bridle tracks were hard-going, most people and freight travelled by sea, often braving inclement weather and the perilous coast, which could take a heavy toll on a small coastal vessel. Eventually, access by land improved and, in 1931, the port closed. In 1945 the Christchurch to Picton railway opened, complete with 21 tunnels.
Like other small towns, Kaikōura suffered from the economic recession of the 1980s. However, since then, an increased number of visitors, attracted mainly by the opportunities provided to observe marine mammals close at hand, has brought increased prosperity to the area.