Rare whales offer New Zealand winter spectacle
18 May 2010
Tourists and professional whale watchers on New Zealand whale watching safaris have been treated to some recent rare sightings as the winter whale season swings into action.
Department of Conservation (DOC) scientist and National Marine Mammal Coordinator Dr Laura Boren says that the number of whale sightings in New Zealand has remained consistent for the past five years - but this year, there have been unusual sightings of rare species.
"We are now entering the beginning of the winter migratory season. Recently, we have been lucky enough to have had two particularly unusual sightings of rare species in our waters."
Dr Boren says conservation workers in the southern South Island have already sighted a blue whale - by far the biggest mammal on earth, on its way down the Otago coast, and a pod of Arnoux’s beaked whales in Fiordland.
"Beaked whales in New Zealand are largely known only from strandings, so live sightings are a rare and exciting occurrence for us," Dr Boren said.
Arnoux’s beaked whale is named for its long, prominent 'beak'. It is part of the giant beaked whale family and lives in the Great Southern Ocean.
Christchurch tourism operator Black Cat Cruises has also reported an increase in the varieties recently seen off the Canterbury coast.
"Black Cat has been operating for 25 years and over the last 12 months we have seen more varieties of whales than ever before off Banks Peninsula," Black Cat Cruises managing director Paul Bingham said.
Sightings have included orca, rare blue whale, fin, Curviar’s beaked, humpback, pilot and southern right whales, as well as good numbers of Hector dolphins.
"It’s just been incredible. We’re not sure why there has been such an increase in whales off the coast but it’s certainly proving to be a bonus," Bingham said.
The multi award-winning Whale Watch Kaikoura - a charitable entity that represents the local Ngati Kuri Māori tribe - takes around 100,000 visitors each year out onto the Pacific Ocean to view the giant sperm whale, with a guaranteed 95% success rate.
Whale Watch boats have already sighted two rare massive blue whales out on the water this year.
"Blue whale sightings are not that common here, maybe one or two times a year. However on this particular tour, passengers got not one but two sightings which was very exciting for all on board," Captain Lisa Bond said.
Whale Watch Kaikoura has won several prestigious eco-tourism awards including the supreme prize and ‘best in marine environment’ for the 2009 Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards. The company is also a finalist for the 2010 Tourism in Tomorrow Awards, recognising best practice in sustainable tourism and due to be announced next week.
Whale watching in NZ
Whale watching is a breath-taking way for nature lovers to while away cooler winter days, experience New Zealand’s diverse marine life and coastal scenery.
Nearly half of the world’s whale species can be seen off New Zealand, and some species, such as sperm whales, are considered ‘permanent residents’.
Baleen whales such as humpbacks, blue and southern whales pass New Zealand at the beginning of winter on their way to the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Southern Pacific ocean - where they go to feed and gain weight, before returning north closer to the equator to give birth in summer.
It's even possible to see whales from city vantage points. Baleen and toothed whales are sometimes seen during winter in Wellington harbour.
The cetaceans enjoy the deep waters of the Cook Strait - between Wellington and the Marlborough Sounds - which provide a nutritious ‘soup’ of fish and tiny marine animals, and a chance to rest and relax before continuing on the migratory journey.
In Auckland, whale and dolphin safaris are a popular visitor experience. The Hauraki Gulf, considered one of the country’s most diverse marine parks, holds 22 species of marine mammals including small pods of whales and dolphins.
Many other provincial New Zealand centres, such as the Bay of Plenty town of Whakatane, also offer whale watching experiences.
Background: Blue whale
The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived on earth, and is found in all major oceans of the world. Its population has been severely depleted to commercial whaling.
Prior to commercial whaling southern hemisphere numbers were estimated at 250,000. Today estimates have their population at less than 500 in southern hemisphere waters.
Blue whale can weigh up to 136,400kg and grow to 34m in length.
Whale Watch Kaikoura - NZ eco-tourism
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