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Southern right whales – something really special

Date:  22 October 2009

Sightings of southern right whales off the coast of Te Waewae Bay and Bluff could show the fragile population is recovering.

The Southland coast continues to be a hotspot for southern right whales with up to 20 whales at a time, including two calves, spending a couple of weeks in Te Waewae Bay recently.

Te Waewae Bay and Bluff Harbour are popular destinations for the migrating mammals - giving the public a chance to see them from the shore and allowing the Department of Conservation (DOC) to add a further 19 genetic samples to its research database.

DOC’s Southland Conservancy ranger Ros Cole said the number of sightings and the presence of two calves were positive signs of a healthy population.

“What we could be witnessing is the recovery of the southern right whale around New Zealand. To have two young calves in Te Waewae Bay at the same time is really something special. It’s been a long time since that would have been seen in Southland.”

At the start of winter the department needed eight unique genetic samples to complete its reasearch project. Once complete it will provide crucial information towards identifying the status of the mainland population and helping the recovery of this threatened species.

Since May this year, 21 genetic samples, including the 19 from Southland, have been collected nationally, compared to 22 individual samples obtained from southern right whales around New Zealand during the previous five migrating seasons.

Ms Cole said there could be repeat samples from the 19 collected in Southland but she was confident the eight needed to reach the reasearch project’s target of 30 had been met.

Most of the samples and photo identification were the result of sighting tip-offs from the public.

Ms Cole said people should continue to report southern right whale sightings and, if possible, take photos of the side of the head, the callosities and any distinguishing features. Individual whales can be identified by their unique pattern of white callosities on their head.

DOC’s national marine mammal co-ordinator Steve Smith said the biopsy sampling will show if there are genetic similarities or differences between southern right whale populations in New Zealand and New Zealand’s subantarctic islands.

“If the New Zealand population is separate to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands we need to know. We can take measures to ensure the whales have the right level of protection from any potential threats like marine farms, ship strikes and coastal developments.”

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