Whalers out for the count

Former whalers will set their sites on the migrating mammals once again over the next month as they prepare to beat their own records during the 10th annual Cook Strait survey.

The seven men who have been part of the survey since its inception will sit from dawn to dusk with other volunteers and staff from the Department of Conservation in a hut near Okukari Bay on Arapawa Island. They will use binoculars as they count whales travelling through Cook Strait from Saturday to July 6.

The annual survey has been carried out since 2004 to assess humpback whale recovery since commercial whaling was banned in 1964. It is timed to coincide with the northern migration from Antarctic waters to the whales' South Pacific breeding grounds.

As two whales surface simultaneously, their differences can be clearly seen.
As two whales surface simultaneously, their differences can be clearly seen.
A humpback puts on a show. The animals are renowned for their athletic abilities and will often treat sight-seers to a impromptu performance.
A humpback puts on a show. The animals are renowned for their athletic abilities and will often treat sight-seers to a impromptu performance.
A baby humpback whale, estimated to be only two days old, swims alongside its mother in the Tory Channel in June 2010. It was the first ever reported sighting of a humback calf in New Zealand.
A baby humpback whale, estimated to be only two days old, swims alongside its mother in the Tory Channel in June 2010. It was the first ever reported sighting of a humback calf in New Zealand.
A whale breaches in the Cook Strait. The whales stay underwater for around 8-10 minutes between coming up for air.
A whale breaches in the Cook Strait. The whales stay underwater for around 8-10 minutes between coming up for air.
A humpback surfaces near rocks in the Cook Strait. The whales pass through the strait as they make their way north for the winter.
A humpback surfaces near rocks in the Cook Strait. The whales pass through the strait as they make their way north for the winter.
Bumpy ridges on a humpback's nose can be seen as it rises out of the water.
Bumpy ridges on a humpback's nose can be seen as it rises out of the water.
Humpback whale are easily identified by their stocky body with obvious humps and black upper parts. The head and lower jaw are covered with small, round bumps called knobs or tubercles.
Humpback whale are easily identified by their stocky body with obvious humps and black upper parts. The head and lower jaw are covered with small, round bumps called knobs or tubercles.

Surveyors counted 106 in last year's four-week survey, the highest number recorded. The second-highest tally of 73 humpbacks came the year before. Last year also recorded the highest number of humpback whales seen in one day, 21 on June 22.

Former whaler turned conservationist and surveyor Joe Heberley, who farms with his wife Heather at Okukari Bay, said the survey was a chance to reminisce about old times.

"They were pretty near gone in the 60s, you wouldn't see one near at all so it's good to see the numbers coming back."

Several humpback whales have already been spotted migrating this year, one at Cape Campbell and one near the Brothers Islands, which could be a good sign for the season ahead, he said.

Former whaler John Norton has lived in Picton all his life and whaled in Cook Strait from 1955 to 1962.

Now a keen conservationist, Mr Norton has donated his time to the survey since it began and was eager for the 10th season to get under way. His brother and fellow spotter, Tommy Norton, was a whaleboat gunner and harpoon operator.

"It's all about spotting the whales. We get there about seven and we're sitting down, warming up the glasses by 7.20, and we stay there until about 5."

Some of the volunteers will spend the nights at the Heberleys' house in the bay.

"Country Calendar's going to be coming along for a bit this year, too, though."

Survey leader and marine ecologist Nadine Bott said it was too soon to tell if the higher numbers of whales recorded in the last two surveys indicated humpback numbers were recovering.

"The higher numbers seen in the past two years could be a sign humpback numbers are improving or it could just be an anomaly.

"We hope they are increasing but it appears that different animals are moving through each year, so it may just be variable each year."

Surveyors spot whales with their binoculars and signal Department of Conservation staff then head out in a boat and get skin samples using a biopsy dart tool and photographs.

The photos and genetic samples are put in a database to see if individual patterns match.

Poor weather could keep sightings down as could the chance that the migration peaks outside of the survey, she said.

"This year's survey may help indicate to what extent humpback numbers may be increasing, but ideally we need at least a further two years of research for it to be clearer."

Information obtained through the research will help efforts to protect humpback whales in the South Pacific and Southern Ocean.

The identification information to date showed some humpback whales migrating through New Zealand waters were also seen off the east coast of Australia and around New Caledonia.

Members of the public can call in Cook Strait whale sightings, or those travelling up the coast from Kaikoura, to the department's Picton office on 03 520 3002.

Staff will ask for the date, time and place of sightings, the number of whales, and the direction they were travelling.

The Marlborough Express