The thrill of the chase

Last updated 18:02 26/07/2011

Thar she blows: A whale spotting guide

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Whale Survey: From killers to conservationists

Killers to conservationists Humpback survey counts record numbers A whale of a family tale The thrill of the chase Whale hunters back on new mission

Chasing a whale can only be described as a nerve-wracking experience.

It's not fear that creates the nerves, however, but an extreme sense of anticipation.

The hours of searching endless blue water, scouring the waves for the smallest sign while not really knowing what to hope for.

Wondering, when we see one - will it disappear? Will we be in time to catch it? Was it even there?

And then, the nail-biting wait as we travel closer, willing the boat forward faster and faster while it seems only to creep at snail speed.

The whale - a humpback and the first I would see at close quarters - had been sighted as part of the annual survey on Arapawa Island in June.

Researchers had gathered, as they do each winter, to count the number of whales migrating through Cook Strait.

After the humpback was spotted from atop the hill, we followed the Department of Conservation boat into the strait to see the whale on its journey north.

As the boat drew closer, I craned my neck out the window, scanning across the waves for what I imagined a whale would look like.

But my imagination - even with the help of TV - did not prepare me for the real thing.

I heard the humpback first, as it spouted a jet of water with a great hiss of air, like a thousand Coke bottles being opened at once.

Next, a great grey curve appeared, coasting gently out of the water with barely a ripple. The whale's long, long back seemed to go on endlessly as it breached.

I had thought that amid the choppy waves and lurching boat, it would be difficult to get near to the whale, but we were able to get as close as we liked.

More than once, the whale surfaced right next to us, giving an impression of its vast size and human-like intelligence.

Though it could have easily smashed the boats to bits, it stayed away, even dodging us when we veered off course.

We stopped following the whale when - at last - it flicked up its tail and we could see the light-coloured underside and dark-edged individual markings.

As the water cascaded from its flukes, it seemed like it was waving goodbye.

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