Tourists make new marine mammal discovery

Ten tourists on a wilderness tour got more than they bargained for when they came across a stranded whale washed up on Northland’s Ninety Mile Beach.

Extraordinary scenery, culture and wildlife are all part of the New Zealand tourism experience. Ten tourists on a wilderness tour got more than they bargained for when they came across a stranded whale washed up on Northland’s Ninety Mile Beach on Christmas Eve.

This is the first ever observation of a Pygmy Killer whale in New Zealand waters.

Leader of the Active Earth Safari Alison Perkins said "my heart sank when I first spotted the dead whale on the sand. I thought 'what am I going to say to my clients if we drive further up the beach and discover it littered with bodies'. It would have been incredibly upsetting."

Like all of the Active Earth guides, Alison has a passion for natural history and the environment. However, fortunately for science Alison’s special area of interest is marine ecology.

"My initial thoughts were that it might be a small Pilot Whale, a species well known for beaching in New Zealand waters. Later that day I showed Department of Conservation employees pictures on my camera.

They thought it might be a Pilot Whale too but I wasn’t 100% convinced. My curiosity got the better of me and I needed a definite identification. When I got home I looked in a whale watching book and emailed some pictures to Wade Doak at his Diver's Discussion Forum website to post up.

I knew that if Wade didn't know, he'd find someone who would" said Alison. This trail led to orca researcher Ingrid Visser who broke the news "this is definitely NOT a pilot whale, but is a pygmy killer whale”.

“Unbelievable. This is the first record of a Pygmy Killer whale in New Zealand waters” emailed Anton van Helden, collection Manager Marine Mammals at Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa).

The Pygmy Killer whale is described as a warm water species found in places such as off the coast of Northern Australia, and is said to rarely if ever venture further south than the Queensland coast - hence the astonishment at finding it here.

Anton says “this now brings the NZ species list to 43 species - quite remarkable really!”

Te Papa Tongarewa are now coordinating with the Department of Conservation and local Iwi to see if they can find and recover the carcass for the museum.

Active Earth and their parent company Hiking New Zealand are already deeply involved in marine mammal ecology.

Since October 1998 they have contributed $5 per safari client into a Wildlife Research Fund - to date having donated $60,000. This fund has contributed to the New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust to assist with conservation of Hector's dolphin.

Hector’s dolphin is one of the rarest species of marine dolphins in the world, found only in New Zealand waters.

And funnily enough, one of Hiking NZ’s directors Mark Brabyn also did a zoology Master degree on precisely what Alison stumbled upon on Christmas Eve – whale strandings.

Guide Alison said “it is remarkable that here in the year 2010 someone like me can still contribute to scientific knowledge by making a simple observation and going on a hunch - it’s a really great feeling”.

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