Maui's dolphin survey winds up
Leaving the freezing Oregon winter to come back to New Zealand each year to survey Maui's dolphin is hardly a chore for Scott Baker.
Whale and dolphin genetics expert, Baker has been involved with the survey since 1998 while tutoring at the University of Auckland. He was also a New Zealand delegate to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission for 13 years.
Baker was also involved in 2001 when Maui's dolphin were shown to be genetically different to the South Island Hector's dolphin.
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Surveys take place in summer as dolphin are more gregarious and sociable. They tend to stick together more than other times of the year with surfers on the west coast often treated to their surfing skills.
Maui's dolphin numbers have plummeted after nylon gill nets became popular with commercial and recreational fishers in the 1970s. Down from an estimated 2,000 to just 55 over one year old by 2012.
Estimating numbers for the tiny dolphin has been carried out using DNA from biopsies since 2001.
"These are conducted across two years, every five years," Baker says.
The last survey was done in 2015 and 2016 with the next in 2020 and 2021.
Last summer there was a ray of light with 63 older dolphins counted including some that had not been seen before.
But this has to be tempered with knowledge that, with numbers so low, detecting any real change in the population isn't easy. Ironically catastrophic change would be easier to spot, he says.
A photographic survey takes place each year and, this year, Baker and members from the Department of Conservation spent 11 days searching off the Manukau Harbour and along the west coast. They were joined by Renee Harbers and daughter Brigitte from the philanthropic Harbers Foundation in the US. Set up by Renee after the tragic death of her husband and Microsoft software developer Jeff Harbers, the foundation helps humanitarian and environmental issues including making short films to raise awareness.
Brigitte came on-board with the surveys several years ago as an exchange student.
Young Ocean Explorers TV series producer and underwater videographer from Snells Beach, Steve Hathaway, was also on-board taking drone footage for a film they have in the pipeline.
During the survey Baker estimates around 10,000 photographs of various dolphins were taken. Distinct shaped dorsal fins, scars, nicks or distinguishing marks will be correlated with known animals and identify new ones.
Researches came across a large group of around 10 animals one day this year. While that makes the researchers jobs easier it also concerns them.
"It puts the dolphins at greater risk if they're congregated together," Baker says.
"Having potentially a fifth of the entire adult population in one spot makes you nervous."