Southern right whale sightings on the rise

02:30, Apr 05 2013
Southern right whale
SIGHTING: A Southern right whale playing in Milford Sound.

A new century has given a new lease of life to the New Zealand southern right whale population, new research shows.

Scientists from the Universities of Auckland and Otago and researchers from the Department of Conservation (DOC), have found that over the past decade the number of southern right whales visiting the mainland has increased substantially, with 28 mother-calf pairs sighted between 2003 and 2010.

To put that in perspective, due to extensive whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries there were no sightings around mainland New Zealand for nearly four decades between 1976-1991 and there were just 11 individual whale sightings from 1992-2002.

Research lead author, Dr Emma Carroll of the University of Auckland, said the findings were a landmark for this whale population.

"For the first time we have documented southern right whales returning to the mainland, including females returning with their calves in different years," she said.

The research suggests that a resurgent population around the Auckland Islands, some 465 kilometres south of mainland New Zealand, appeared to be re-colonising the mainland.

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DOC researcher Dr Laura Boren, said the public who reported sightings had played an important role in the research.

"Their reports enable our staff to obtain samples from opportunistic sightings, in numbers that wouldn't otherwise be possible," she said.

"This has been a great piece of collaborative work to monitor the re-colonisation of an endangered species."

The findings were based on those sightings as well as photograph matching and DNA profiling of skin samples from individual whales.

The research was published in the current issue of Marine Mammal Science.

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