Public Asked to Keep Tabs on Migrating Whales

Southern Right whales appear to spend life enjoying an endless summer, spending the austral summer feeding in the waters south of New Zealand and then heading north to breed in the tropics.

But is that what they really do? That’s what New Zealand conservationists want to find out and they are enlisting the public’s help.

“Logistically it really helps if the public get in behind this issue and help with sightings where possible. Basically there are a lot of public out there in boats or fishermen than there are DOC staff or researchers,” says Helen McConnell, a marine conservation officer at the Department of Conservation.

So over the next few months, when the Southern Right whales traditionally migrate from the waters of the sub-Antarctic to the tropics in the north, DOC is hoping to hear from anyone who spots one of these marine mammals.

The sightings might help DOC to clear up a puzzle over exactly which whales live where. So far, 410 individual Southern Right whales have been identified near the sub-Antarctic islands. But there appears to be no overlap with the population around New Zealand which number around 30 individuals. To find out if the two populations are indeed separate, more information is needed. Says Ms McConnell: “[There are] big question marks, really, and that’s the reason behind our call for public help.”

Added to the somewhat confusing mix of information is the fact that mothers and calves were last year sighted off the east coast of New Zealand, suggesting that perhaps some of the mammals are breeding here, rather than farther north. If the New Zealand waters are home to its own population of Southern Right whales, then the low numbers (around 30) would make this group endangered.

“If this is true, New Zealand’s Southern Right whale is in serious peril. We urgently need more information about this population to improve our ability to protect them from being hit by ships and entangling in fishing gear,” says Rob Suisted, DOC’s marine mammal co-ordinator.

This year is the second year that the New Zealand public has been asked to report sightings of Southern Right whales to the DOC. Last year, thanks largely to tip-offs from the public, the conservation agency was able to obtain 12 genetic samples from skin biopsies of whales around New Zealand and was able to take photographs for individual identification as well. “The more skin samples and the more photo IDs we can get, the more certain we can be,” says McMcConnell.

Right whales were so-called because they were the “right” whales to kill — large, slow-moving beasts that floated when dead and yielded large amounts of valuable oil, bone and baleen. Once thought to number 16,000 in New Zealand waters, including the sub-Antarctic, they had all but disappeared by 1860 because of whaling pressure. In one winter season, in 1836, at least 97 whales were killed by crews from three whaling ships in the South Island’s Lyttelton Harbour alone. New Zealand’s last whaling station closed in 1964.

This winter, if you do happen to become a Southern Right whale watcher, then DOC needs to know the date, time and location of the sighting; the number of whales; whether there are any calves; and the direction of travel.

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