Return of the right whale

Last updated 14:17 31/10/2012

Q.  What animal used to be so plentiful that in the 1840s, their carousing and cavorting was soooo loud that visitors to Wellington complained that the noise was keeping them awake? (hint: It wasn't party-goers on Courtenay Place)

A.  The southern right whale.

Southern right whale

Named because they were the 'right' whale to hunt, due to  being big and slow, having plenty of blubber and oil and floating when dead (therefore being easy to drag around), right whales have had a real hard time since humans worked out we could make perfume (and a range of other products) out of them.

In fact, we humans took quite a chunk out of the southern right whale population, particularly the ones who favour the waters of New Zealand, which are only just beginning to make a comeback to our coastal areas.  By 1936 we had all but hunted the local Southern right whale into extinction. 

Before whaling, there were thought to be 10 000 southern right whales around New Zealand. Over the last decade, scientists have estimated there are only about thirty or so southern right whales found locally in our coastal waters. This slow recovery has occurred because the long-lived whales only have a calf every three years. 

What I love about the southern right whales is their habit of hugging the coast - meaning we get to see them up close and personal. This characteristic is actually really useful when it comes to the conservation of these whales - because it means we can get close enough to individually identify animals through photo identification and DNA analysis.  The photo ID is easy enough to do because right whales have the characteristic white 'blotches' on their face. It's a bit of a gross ID pattern though, because if you get close enough, those blotches are in fact colonies of white whale lice living on the rougher parts the whales skin on its face.  Each blotch pattern is unique and means we can track who is who and where the whales go.

Many years ago, when I'd just started working for the Department of Conservation, a local fisherman near Karitane (Dunedin) told us he'd spotted a couple of whales just offshore. We needed to get photo and DNA material as soon as possible.  Myself and another ranger joined him in his boat and searched fruitlessly off the Otago coast for an hour or so before giving up and returning to shore. My fellow ranger and I were pretty despondent, but decided to park up at a nearby beach to eat our lunch before heading back to the office. While we unwrapped our sammies, we looked up and saw the two whales rolling around about two hundred metres in front of us!

Back to the fishermen we went and spent an amazing afternoon side by side with the whale pair (thought to be a mother and calf) getting crucial identification data.  I remember hanging off the front of the boat alongside the fisherman, his grandson, their jack russell dog, snapping pictures of the whales just metres in front of me and thinking I probably had the best job in the whole world! (for more about ranger jobs, check out this blog from earlier this month).

Southern right whale2

Snapping photos of whales is great fun, but collecting DNA is another challenge altogether. To collect whale DNA, the best way is to get a tiny sliver of blubber. Getting close enough to do so is risky and almost impossible, so a modified air-rifle has been developed that shoots an empty cartridge which skims a tiny piece of the whale's skin/blubber and then hangs floating in the water after the whale dives.  You'd think hitting an eighteen metre long animal the size of a bus would be easy, but in a swell while the whale dives and rises to the surface, and allowing for the lightness of the cartridge (therefore the arc required to hit your target) is no mean feat. Still many rangers have gained valuable data this way (and surprise surprise, no need to actually kill the whale to find out about it, as per the Japanese 'scientific' whaling program).

Southland residents got some fantastic news a couple of months ago, when what is thought to be the first southern right whale calf born in New Zealand waters since whaling ended appeared with its mother off Colac Bay near Riverton. Weighing in at an estimated 950kgs it was a bouncing baby indeed.  Still another baby right whale was thought to have been born near Auckland's Browns Bay earlier this year.

So with no hunting of the southern right whales in New Zealand more, some eighty years later, they have the opportunity to make a comeback. However, while hunting may no longer be a threat, the tiny gene pool is a problem. In fact researchers have shown that local males tend to father most of the whale calves in any group, suggesting that the whales are returning to the same area every year. What is needed, say the scientists are some visiting foreign males who can help diversify the gene pool.

If you haven't seen a southern right whale, think of the ones in the movie 'Whale Rider' (which of course were made by the special effects company Glasshammer FX). I remember hearing lead actor Rawiri Paratene saying that when they were shooting the scenes where the whales strand, he walked out on the beach, and felt very emotional being up close and personal with these whales, and stood in front of one, quite overwhelmed, until a guy in a scuba tank climbed out of it, ruining his 'nature' moment!

Here's the clip to remind you.

Have you ever seen a visiting southern right whale? Where did you see it?

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