Introduction

A DOC research team will be scanning the Cook Strait sea with their sights set on whales as the annual whale survey gets underway this month.
A Department of Conservation research team that includes former whalers will be scanning the Cook Strait sea with their sights set on whales as the 12th annual whale survey gets underway in the area this month.

The Cook Strait Whale Survey, a DOC partnership with OMV New Zealand, will count whales passing through the strait for four weeks, from Saturday 13 June to Saturday 11 July.

Humpback whale breach.
Humpback whale

The research is assessing humpback whale recovery since whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964. The surveys are timed for humpbacks’ annual migration from Antarctic waters to South Pacific breeding grounds.

Last year 92 humpback whales were counted, the second highest tally in the survey with the highest being 106 humpbacks in 2012.

Wellington marine ecologist Nadine Bott, who leads the survey, said it was hoped data collected this year along with information from the previous 11 surveys would enable more conclusive findings to be made about the rate of recovery of humpback whales in New Zealand waters.

"The survey findings so far indicate the New Zealand humpback population is only slowly increasing but further analysis is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

"We are starting to see a few re-sightings of some whales travelling through Cook Strait and with the slow increase we expect to see more every year. We are excited to see what or who turns up this year.

"Humpback recovery will be assessed by comparing numbers seen in the surveys to whalers’ records of humpbacks in Cook Strait from the 1950s and early 1960s.

"We are grateful to OMV New Zealand for partnering with us for this research. Through the increased information it gathers about humpback whales it assists efforts to protect the whales in the South Pacific and Southern Ocean."

Six former whalers lead the whale-spotting from a lookout point high on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds. The survey team approaches whales by boat to collect skin samples using a biopsy dart tool and photos that can be used to identify individual whales. These can be checked against photographs and genetic samples from whales across the South Pacific to see if any match.

Former whalers spotting whales in the Cook Strait.
Former whalers whale spotting

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.

Support for the whale survey also comes from Transact Management Ltd which provides logistical assistance, the Bell Tea & Coffee Company which supplies tea and coffee to sustain the whale watchers in the winter cold, and the University of Auckland which provides genetic analysis support.

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 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.

Background information

The survey initially ran for two weeks and whales recorded in those years were:

2004 25 humpbacks with another six large whales seen, some later
identified as blue whales
2005 15 humpbacks
2006 18 humpbacks
2007 41 humpbacks and one southern right whale

OMV New Zealand sponsorship enabled the survey to increase for four weeks from 2008. Whales recorded in the survey from that time were:

2008 40 humpbacks and four pygmy blue whales
2009 49 humpbacks and one sperm whale
2010 70 humpbacks, including a newborn, two sperm and three minke whales
2011 73 humpbacks, with blue and sperm whales and orca also seen
2012 106 humpbacks
2013

59 humpbacks, with blue whales also seen

2014

92 humpback whales

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