Humpback Whale Survey in Cook Strait, New Zealand
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Humpback Whale Survey in Cook Strait, New Zealand

Humpback whales migrate north from Antarctic to warmer northern Pacific feeding and breeding grounds during the winter months of June and July. They pass through the waters of Cook Strait, New Zealand, where an annual survey monitors population numbers, establishing the rate of recovery of these mammals since commercial whaling was banned in New Zealand in 1964. The 2012 survey began on Saturday 9 June.

On 9 June, 2012 the annual NZ Department of Conservation survey of the humpback whale population passing through New Zealand waters of Cook Strait began and it will continue for four weeks, until 7 July. The annual survey monitoring southern ocean humpbacks began in 2004 and is to assess how well the humpback population is recovering since commercial whaling was banned in New Zealand in 1964. The information gained in the survey is used in protection projects in the southern hemisphere waters.

New Zealand's earliest strong connection with humpbacks dates back to the Maori migration to New Zealand, when it is believed many of the canoes made landfall here through the help of the whales. Whales are said to be descendants of Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea.

Whaling was one of the earliest 19th century industries in New Zealand, with commercial whaling stations in the Cook Strait region nearly bringing humpbacks to extinction in the 20th century. It is estimated that about 90% of the humpback whale population was killed before whaling was banned in New Zealand. By that time the whales had stopped passing through Cook Strait.

In the southern hemisphere humpback whales migrate up from Antarctic in the winter months, to their warmer northern Pacific feeding and breeding grounds. The females give birth to their calves during their Pacific stay. On their migratory journey they mainly travel up the east coast of the South Island, passing through Cook Strait, the stretch of water between New Zealand's North and South Islands.They return to Antarctic down the west coast in Spring.

This years survey, starting earlier than usual, is led by Department of Conservation marine ecologist, Nadine Bott. Seven former whalers assist DOC staff in the research survey each year. The whalers, whose spotting skills and knowledge of the whales is invaluable, are based for the duration of the survey on Arapawa Island in Queen Charlotte Sounds at the top of the South Island. The whalers and volunteers spend from dawn to dusk watching and monitoring the number of whales that pass through Cook Strait.

Once whales are spotted, others go out to them in boats, to take photos and skin samples that will help with identification of individual whales during the monitoring. Although the population is slowly increasing since whaling was banned, it is doing so more slowly than had been expected. Researchers hope to establish why through their findings.

Previous sightings of humpback whales fro the last eight years are 47 in 2004, 18 in 2005, 15 in 2006, 25 in 2007, 37 in 2008, 46 in 2009, 43 in 2010 and 73 in 2011. On the second day of this years survey six humpback whales had already been sighted.

Members of the public are also encouraged to report any whale sightings during this time to the Department of Conservation. They need to make note o fthe date, time and place of any humpback sightings, how many there were and the direction they were moving in.

Other articles by Val Mills:

The Marlborough Wine Region of New Zealand

Captain James Cook: Ship Cove, New Zealand

An Introduction to Cook Strait New Zealand

Pelorus Jack: a Famous New Zealand Dolphin

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Comments (2)
Ranked #20 in Biology

Whales are such amazing animals we need to save them.

Great article Val. I'm an Aussie and have a fascination about whales and their migratory habits. I would have thought the numbers were greater concerning sightings. It would be interesting to know if there are more in waters closer to Australia. Following you and will read your other articles soon.