Date: 05 June 2012
Former whalers and Department of Conservation researchers are again about to scour the Cook Strait sea for whales as the ninth winter whale survey in the area gets underway on Saturday 9 June.
The Cook Strait Whale Survey, which is assessing humpback whale recovery since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964, will run for four weeks until Saturday 7 July. Based on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds, the research team counts whales passing through Cook Strait as they make their annual migration north from Antarctic waters to South Pacific breeding grounds.
Seven former whalers have been part of the research project since it began in 2004 putting into action their sharp-eyed spotting skills and whale knowledge.
The survey is sponsored by OMV New Zealand Limited which also supports school students learning about whales and the research project through the web-based educational LEARNZ programme. The LEARNZ Wandering Whales programme is featuring on www.learnz.org.nz for the third year running, joining the survey team for a field trip from 20 to 22 June.
DOC Wellington-based marine ecologist Nadine Bott, who leads the survey, says the information obtained through the research assists efforts to protect humpback whales in the South Pacific and Southern Ocean.
‘Our eight years of survey has provided useful information on humpback whales in New Zealand waters. The findings to date suggest the population here is only slowly increasing and at a much slower rate than the Australian population. We are endeavouring through this research to find out why that is.
‘I am extremely grateful to OMV New Zealand Limited for working in partnership with the Department of Conservation for this valuable humpback whale research.’
Last year’s survey achieved an all-time high tally with 73 humpbacks spotted, 19 sightings of blue whales, which included repeat sightings of at least four individual blue whales, four sperm whale sightings, thought to be of the same whale, and two orca sightings, also likely the same whale.
Whales seen are approached by boat to endeavour to get photographs and skin samples, using a biopsy dart tool, which can be used to identify individual whales. These can be checked against photographs and genetic samples obtained from whales across the South Pacific to see if any match. The identification information to date shows some humpback whales migrating through New Zealand waters are also seen off the east coast of Australia and around New Caledonia.
Members of the public can assist the survey by reporting sightings of whales in the Cook Strait area or travelling up the coast from Kaikoura. Sightings can be reported to DOC’s Picton office on +64 3 520 3002. Information is sought on the date, time and place of whale sightings, number of whales, and the direction the whale or whales were travelling.
The whale survey is also supported by Transact Management Ltd which provides logistical assistance and The Bell Tea & Coffee Company which supplies tea and coffee to sustain the whale watchers in the winter cold. It is also supported by other volunteers who lend a hand with the surveying.
The survey initially ran for two weeks and whales recorded in those years were: in 2004, 47 humpbacks with another six large whales seen, some later identified as blue whales from photographs;18 humpbacks in 2005; 15 humpbacks in 2006; in 2007, 25 humpbacks and one southern right whale.
The OMV New Zealand sponsorship enabled the survey to increase to four weeks with whales recorded in those years: in 2008, 37 humpbacks and four pygmy blue whales; in 2009, 46 humpbacks and one sperm whale; in 2010, 43 humpbacks, including a newborn, two sperm and three minke whales.