Department of Conservation researchers and former whalers are to team up again this winter to count whales in Cook Strait.

Department of Conservation researchers and former whalers are to team up again this winter to count whales in Cook Strait and hundreds of school students will once more join them online to study whales close up from their classrooms.

This is the eighth year of the DOC Cook Strait Whale Survey which is assessing recovery of humpback whales since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964. The survey, based on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds, will this year run from Saturday 11 June until Saturday 9 July. The four-week survey is timed for around the peak period for whales migrating north from Antarctic waters to South Pacific breeding grounds.

DOC Wellington-based marine ecologist Nadine Bott, who leads the survey, said it had been possible to continue the whale research project for another three years thanks to renewed sponsorship from OMV New Zealand Limited. Sponsorship from the company had also supported four-week surveys over the past three years.

OMV is also assisting the web-based educational programme LEARNZ to feature the Cook Strait whale research as a virtual field trip for the second year running. Last year’s Wandering Whales field trip proved highly popular with 3892 students from 164 classes from around the country participating.

“I am extremely grateful to OMV New Zealand Limited for providing further funding for the Cook Strait humpback whale research,” said Nadine Bott. “We have gained some useful knowledge to date about humpback whales but more research is needed.

“Importantly, next year we aim to extend the survey to around three months to cover the humpbacks’ full northern migration in order to estimate the size of the humpback population in New Zealand waters.

“Also, the survey findings to date suggest the New Zealand population is only slowly increasing and at a much slower rate than the Australian population. We would like to try to find out why that is.

“The information obtained through this research is valuable in assisting efforts to protect humpback whales in the South Pacific and Southern Ocean.

“We are really pleased to have LEARNZ participating for a second year creating opportunity for school students to learn about the scientific research involved, and about whales and the marine environment and impacts on them including human activities. Students will get insight from former whalers about life as a whaler and take a look around the historic Perano Whaling Station on Arapawa Island which has recently been restored.”

The Wandering Whales field trip will run on the LEARNZ website from 22 to 24 June.

Former whalers have been part of the research project since it began in 2004 and seven former whalers will bring their whale-spotting skills and whale knowledge to this year’s survey.

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.

Identification information gathered to date shows some humpback whales migrating through New Zealand waters are also seen off the east coast of Australia and in the waters around New Caledonia.

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.

This year 15 June will mark the 100-year anniversary from when the first whale was caught in Cook Strait by the Perano family who set up a whaling station in 1911 in Yellerton.

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 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.

Last year’s survey counted 43 humpback whales. It included an exciting encounter with a mother and its newborn baby, the first newborn humpback calf sighted in New Zealand waters. There were also two sperm whale and three minke whale sightings.

Background information

Whales recorded in the two-week survey periods were: in 2004, 47 humpbacks with another six large whales seen, some of which were later identified from photographs as blue whales;18 humpbacks in 2005; 15 humpbacks in 2006; in 2007, 25 humpbacks and one southern right whale.

Whales recorded in the four-week survey periods were: 37 humpbacks and four pygmy blue whales in 2008; in 2009, 46 humpbacks and one sperm whale; 43 humpback whales, two sperm and three minke whales in 2010.

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