No whale watch likely here

JOHN ANTHONY
Last updated 05:00 23/06/2012

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A recently discovered blue whale feeding ground off Cape Egmont won't make Taranaki the next Kaikoura, tourism operators say.

Department of Conservation and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) were both surprised by the discovery of the feeding ground 20 kilometres off Taranaki's coast.

The blue whale hot spot first came to DOC's attention in 2007 when a tug boat driver reported a feeding frenzy of 20 whales in about 100 metres of water.

Since then there have been frequent sightings, DOC said.

But ranger Bryan Williams said he didn't think there would be enough of the giant mammals passing through to justify whale watching operators starting up.

"The whales we have are usually moving through fairly quickly," Mr Williams said.

Whales which pass through Taranaki waters include Southern Right Whales, humpbacks, sperm whales and blue whales.

Up to 10 right whales are reported each year and even fewer humpbacks, he said.

There are probably a lot more passing through which are never spotted because of the West coast's wild weather, he said.

"We get a lot more whales going past here than what we realise or know about."

Orca and common dolphin were seen all year round, he said.

"This year in January and February there were several thousand common dolphins off here."

Predicting when blue whales would be feeding off Cape Egmont was no mean feat, he said.

"It's very difficult to get there and get your timing right to see these whales.

"It's sort of no-man's land."

Kaikoura's coast had much deeper water than Taranaki which meant it had more bait fish for whales to feed on all year round, he said.

"That food source is there because the deep water comes in so close to the coast."

The East Coast was generally more sheltered than the west, meaning charters could get more operating days in.

Kaikoura's tourism agency said the town gets about 220,000 overnight visitors a year, many of whom visit for whale watching.

The average Kaikoura whale watching charter costs about $140 for an adult with an 80 per cent refund if no whales are seen.

Chaddy's Charters skipper David Chadfield said there was no chance a viable whale watching industry could be established in Taranaki.

"There would never be enough regular visits," Mr Chadfield said.

"It's a passing area."

He saw whales at the Sugar Loaf Islands on three separate occasions last year but that wasn't enough to warrant establishing a whale watching charter, he said.

Heliview Taranaki owner Richard Foale said he was excited at the prospect of whale watching off Taranaki but felt at this stage sightings weren't consistent enough.

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At $2000 an hour to run a helicopter, a customer would need big pockets to pay for a whale watching flight, he said.

"People aren't going to do it unless they're assured that there's going to be some out there," Mr Foale said.

To get to the blue whale feeding ground would take up to 30 minutes of flying each way, he said.

If whale sightings became a regular occurrence, then it could be a market opportunity Heliview would look at down the line, he said.

"I certainly want to look at it closer because there's potential there."

Heliview was always keen to hear of sightings off Taranaki so it could arrange whale watching flights, he said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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