Humpback survey counts record numbers

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 18:02 26/07/2011
Humpbacks 4
Nadine Bott Zoom
As two whales surface simultaneously, their differences can be clearly seen.

From humble beginnings...

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The Cook Strait whale survey has come a long way since its humble beginnings eight years ago.

Draughty scout tents have been replaced by a sturdy, warm hut. The number of former whalers spotting has increased from four to six. And the survey has sighted its first humpback calf.

Now, scientists are hoping to extend the project from four weeks to 12 in the hope of covering the full migration period.

The Department of Conservation's Nadine Bott, who leads the survey, says funding from sponsor OMV (an Austrian oil company) means the survey also has enough money to continue for three more years, taking the project's length to a decade.

"I think we need to do the full survey to get a trend," Bott says.

"We've only got a snapshot of the full picture so far."

The survey, an annual event, was begun in 2004. Its aim is to assess the recovery of humpback whales since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964.

It counts the humpbacks as they migrate north from Antarctic waters to South Pacific breeding grounds.

This year the team has spotted a record 73 whales. But Bott says while it's encouraging, it doesn't necessarily mean numbers are on the up.

"I think it's just they've come through in a concentration. It tapered off significantly towards the end," she says.

"Instead of them travelling throughout the period we've just had a really big surge."

Based on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds, the project includes former whalers and volunteers as well as DOC staff.

Whales seen in the survey are approached by boat to endeavour to get photographs and skin samples, using a biopsy dart, which can be used to identify individual whales.

The samples can be checked against photographs and genetic samples obtained from whales across the South Pacific to see if any match.

So far, only one whale has been counted twice, in 2004 and again in 2007.

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