Taihape man part of whale project

Project a family affair

EMILY BEAUMONT
Last updated 08:26 15/07/2014
whale
Majestic animal: A humpback whale passes through the Cook Strait on its annual migration from Antarctica to breeding grounds in the sub-tropics.

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A Taihape man is playing an instrumental role in a humpback whale survey conducted in the Cook Strait.

John Gibbs has been monitoring the recovery of the whale numbers since the annual Cook Strait Whale Project was started 11 years ago.

"The idea is to try and build up a database of the New Zealand humpback whale population in order to find out a bit more about their biology and ecology, where they breed and that sort of thing," Gibbs said.

His daughter Nadine Bott is the project manager. She relies on her father, former whalers, Department of Conservation staff and a team of volunteers for the month-long, mid-year endeavour.

Assisted by former whalers, who had worked the same waters until whaling in New Zealand was banned in 1964, they spot the whales from a lookout high above the entrance to Tory Channel.

Gibbs then skippers a crew of up to six people, in a 6.5-metre-long aluminium vessel, and gives chase in the hope of acquiring photographic identification of each whale.

Ideally the whale will leap out of the water and expose the distinct pattern of markings on the underside of its tail. This can be compared with a database of humpbacks all around the Pacific for recognition.

The crew also attempts to get within 10m to 15m of the whale and use a dart gun to attain a tissue biopsy sample for DNA analysis.

"We've had no near misses, we're pretty careful and reasonably experienced at dealing with the conditions," Gibbs said of the sometimes treacherous Cook Strait. "We know our operating limits."

The whales migrate from the feeding grounds in Antarctica to the breeding grounds in the sub-tropics and fast rather than feed during the journey.

"Working with them, you get a much better impression of the whales themselves, how they behave and how they react to humans.

"It's quite neat, they're really neat animals to work with, they're just massive in the water."

When this year's study concluded yesterday, there had been 92 sightings, the second highest on record.

"Because their population growth is so slow, we can't read too much into it in just 10 years of monitoring," Gibbs said.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith said the findings indicated the New Zealand humpback population was increasing, but slowly.

The research project was still gathering data and further analysis was needed before firm conclusions could be drawn.

"It is the second highest to the 106 sighted in 2012 and compares to an average of 66 over the past six years where we have carried out a four-week survey."

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- Manawatu Standard

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