Blue whale research begins off the Taranaki Coast
Research on the world's largest animal has begun off the coast of Taranaki.
Blue whales are being studied by a team from Oregon State University (OSU) in collaboration with the Department of Conservation to try to find out if the species use the South Taranaki Bight as a feeding ground.
The survey comes after OSU marine mammal expert Leigh Torres led a team of researchers who observed dozens of blue whales feeding about 100km off the coast south of New Plymouth in 2014.
"We want to know when and where the blue whales occur in the South Taranaki Bight, as well as how many blue whales use this area as a foraging ground," Torres said.
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"We also hope to understand how long they stay in the area or come back regularly to feed there. This information will help us protect the whales and their habitat," she said.
Only four blue whale foraging grounds have been documented in the Southern Hemisphere outside Antarctic waters - the south and south western coasts of Australia, near the fjords of southern Chile, near the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean, and on the Madagascar Plateau.
Torres said blue whales were hunted in the region between 1958 and 1970, but the first recorded sighting she had was from 1985.
She said since then there had been a number of sightings in Taranaki from various sources which had led her here to study them.
Research was to be conducted in an area of the Tasman Sea between Cape Egmont and Farewell Spit, and would be a three-year project in the hope of determining if the whales used Taranaki as a foraging ground.
The initial work for the study, which began this month and would run until late February, would see researchers deploy hydrophones, microphones designed to be used for recording or listening to underwater sound, to record whale calls over the next two years to help map the movement of the whales.
They will also be taking photographs to identify individual whales and take small tissue samples from each whale which would be analysed to provide information about the blue whale population off the Taranaki coast.
Blue whales are an endangered species thought to inhabit all of the world's oceans with an estimated population between 10,000 and 25,000.
They can grow up to 30 metres in length, weigh as much as 200 tonnes and, although they are occasionally spotted in small pods, usually roam alone or in pairs.
"Blue whales are usually solitary but can aggregate in areas of dense prey to take advantage of feeding opportunities. That's what we think is happening here in the South Taranaki Bight," Torres said.