Date: 11 June 2009
Department of Conservation researchers and former whalers are again about to start their winter watch for humpback whales moving through Cook Strait.
DOC’s annual Cook Strait Whale Survey, now in its sixth year, gets underway on Saturday 13 June and runs till Saturday 11 July. Thanks to a partnership with OMV NZ Ltd the survey, which ran for two weeks in its first four years, now runs for four weeks, and it will continue for at least another year.
The survey is assessing recovery of humpback whales since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964. It is timed to take place around the peak period for whales migrating north to South Pacific breeding grounds.
DOC Wellington Conservancy marine ecologist Nadine Bott, who leads the survey, said the four-week survey period meant more information could be gathered to increase knowledge about whales in New Zealand waters.
“The timing of the annual migration of humpback whales has varied each year. That combined with winter weather conditions that can make it difficult to see whales has meant some years we have seen considerably less whales than other years. The longer survey period enables to get a better indication of whale numbers and to collect more information about them.
“We are very grateful to OMV NZ Ltd for entering into a three-year partnership with us, enabling the expanded survey effort that benefits whale conservation”.
“Additionally, Picton-based Dolphin Watch Ecotours has provided significant support for the project every year since it started in 2004. This year we are also fortunate to have logistical support for the project from Transact Management Ltd and Canon New Zealand generously donated a Canon digital SLR camera.”
Last year’s four-week survey recorded 37 humpback whales and four pygmy blue whales.
Members of the public can support the survey by reporting sightings of whales in the Cook Strait area or travelling up the coast from Kaikoura. Sightings can be reported to the survey team on 021 781 610 or DOC’s Picton office on 03 520 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.
Mrs Bott said reports were already coming in of humpbacks being sighted off Kaikoura and in Cook Strait in recent weeks.
The survey team watch for whales from a lookout point on Arapawa Island where since last year the whale spotters have been sheltered from wintry weather in a hut built with support from Picton and Blenheim businesses and individuals.
When a whale is seen, survey team members go by boat to the whale to endeavour to get photographs and skin samples, using a biopsy dart tool. These can be used to distinguish individual whales and are checked against photographs and genetic samples obtained from whales across the South Pacific to see if any match.
Mrs Bott said preliminary survey findings suggest that the number of humpback whales migrating annually through Cook Strait recorded by the survey were only around 20 per cent of the numbers seen in 1960, based on records from the Tory Channel whaling station.
“This represents some recovery from 1963 when less than 20 were seen during the whole season but humpback whale numbers in Cook Strait appear to remain highly depleted despite over 40 years of protection.”
Former whalers have been involved in the survey since it started in 2004 using their whale spotting skills to help look for whales. Ex-whalers taking part include Joe Heberley, Basil Jones, Peter, Ron and Ted Perano, and Tommy and Johnny Norton.
Whales recorded in the two-week survey periods in the first four years were: in 2007, 25 humpbacks and one southern right whale; in 2006, 15 humpbacks; in 2005, 18 humpbacks; and in the survey’s first year, 2004, 47 humpbacks were recorded and another six whales seen, some of which were identified as blue whales.