Archived content: This media release was accurate on the date of publication. 


An early morning search for an entangled humpback whale in the Bay of Islands has been postponed due to worsening weather conditions.

Date:  30 September 2010

An early morning search for an entangled humpback whale in the Bay of Islands has been postponed due to worsening weather conditions.

Bay of Islands Coastguard had offered an hour’s free flying time with their aircraft which had been set to head out just after 7am this morning to locate the whale. The search was to include Department of Conservation staff in a DOC boat, joined by Ingrid Visser, Orca Research, in her boat.

Reports yesterday indicate the animal is between 12-15 metres long, and has rope and a clear plastic buoy entangled around its mouth. 

Biodiversity programme manager in the Bay of Islands, Adrian Walker, said that 20-knot north easterly and rain with poor visibility, have forced the team to postpone their search. Mr Walker said DOC appreciative of reports from tour boat operators in the Bay of Islands.

“Two commercial tourism operators with much larger vessels are still able to operate, so we have asked them to keep an eye out and alert us of any sightings,” said Mr Walker. A DOC vessel is also operating and keeping an eye out for this animal.

A navy vessel currently in the Bay has also been alerted. 

Mr Walker said DOC would continue to monitor the weather conditions and have the team on standby to launch a rescue operation, should conditions change and a positive sighting be made.

“Trying to locate the whale in the Bay of Islands without aerial support was a little like ‘looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said.

Mr Walker also expressed his gratitude to the tourist operators, who were the first to alert the Department to the distressed marine mammal yesterday morning.

“Our tourist operators are out their every day and are basically our eyes and ears when it comes to marine mammal issues. They make a living from the marine environment, particularly the marine mammals that frequent here, so naturally take their welfare very seriously,” said Mr Walker.

The DOC team currently on standby were involved in an operation late yesterday to free another humpback whale with seine net wrapped around its head and tail. 

Mike Morrissey from Kaikoura Area Office is heading the operation, with support from Ingrid Visser, Orca Research. Mike has had training and experience in a technique to free entangled marine mammals called ‘kegging.’ This technique was used yesterday to free an entangled humpback whale with great success.

It involves hooking a grapnel hook onto debris wrapped around the whale, then attaching large windy buoys to hooks along a 50-metre rope. Once the buoys are attached, the boat follows the whale until it tires itself out. After the whale is sufficiently exhausted, staff will attach the boat onto the rope and remove the buoys, then edge along the rope until they are close enough to reach over with a long pole and curved knife to remove the debris.

Humpback whales are inquisitive by nature and like to play with crayfish pots, which can lead to entanglement. The Department says that although there have been cases of entangled humpbacks in New Zealand, mainly in Kaikoura, it’s not a major issue at present. The last recorded entanglement before this one was in 2008.

The current situation is a ‘remarkable’ coincidence. Yesterday’s humpback appeared to be entangled in seine net, whereas the current one may have entangled itself in a crayfish pot. 

Humpbacks are baleen whales, meaning they filter their food through a series of baleen plates, instead of teeth. They can grow up to 16 metres and weigh up to 50 tonnes, making them one of the largest of the ocean’s mammals. Despite their great size, they are incredibly agile, able to leap right out of the water, much to the delight and awe of anyone fortunate enough to witness their acrobatic displays. They are also beautiful singers.

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