Whale survey reaches classrooms

00:51, Jun 09 2010

Thousands of schoolchildren will be able to watch this year's annual Cook Strait whale survey thanks to the internet.

Based at the rough and isolated tip of Arapawa Island, the survey aims to assess the recovery of humpback whales since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964.

The survey runs for four weeks around the peak period for whales migrating north from Antarctic waters to South Pacific breeding grounds, which this year is from June 12 until July 10.

It is into its seventh year, although this year could be the last.

DOC marine ecologist Nadine Bott said the annual four-week surveys had been possible for the last three years only with the help of funding from oil and gas company OMV.

OMV's safety and environmental manager, Nicholas Cavaye, said supporting the research had been a rewarding experience for the company which had a passion for the environment.

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If DOC was looking for further funding in the future, it would be welcome to apply again for more support from OMV, he said.

Seven former Marlborough whalers have taken part in the survey since 2004, putting their whale-sighting skills to good use.

This month, schoolchildren will be able to do a virtual field trip to the survey on the Learnz Internet-based educational programme.

More than 3000 students from around the country are so far enrolled to watch the Wandering Whales virtual field trip running from June 23 to 25 on learnz.org.nz.

They will learn about humpback whales, whale conservation and New Zealand's whaling past.

Mrs Bott said the former whalers would be able to pass on their knowledge of whales and their experience of whaling to the children through the internet program.

She said surveyors would also be looking for whales with satellite tags on them as part of the New Zealand and Australian governments' Southern Ocean Research Partnership, which researches large whales in the Ross Sea area and adjacent Southern Ocean.

Last year's survey counted 46 humpback whales, and a sperm whale was also seen for the first time in the survey.

When whales are spotted, survey team members go by boat to the whales to try to get photographs and skin samples, using a biopsy dart tool, which can be used to identify individual whales.

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

Mrs Bott said survey findings so far suggested the number of humpback whales migrating annually through Cook Strait was slowly recovering, but still appeared to be only a small percentage of the numbers seen in 1960, based on records from the Tory Channel whaling station.

Members of the public can support the survey by reporting sightings of whales in the Cook Strait area or travelling up the coast from Kaikoura.

Sightings can be reported to the survey team on 021 781 610 or DOC's Picton office on 03 520 3002. Information is sought on the date, time and place of whale sightings, number of whales, and the direction the whale or whales were travelling.

The Marlborough Express