Blue whale dine out off Taranaki in their dozens
The South Taranaki Bight could be about to join a very exclusive club.
A team of blue whale researchers, led by Niwa marine ecologist Leigh Torres, has spotted dozens of the gigantic mammals feeding off the Taranaki Coast.
With only four other whale foraging grounds documented in the southern hemisphere outside Antarctic waters, the find has researchers excited.
Speaking from Niwa's coastal research vessel Ikatere, Dr Torres said it was now about confirming the scale and significance of the foraging ground.
"You wouldn't normally find 50 whales in one area, so that does mean that the area is important," she said.
"It is very exciting to see these whales and start the process of collecting important data on this undescribed population and poorly understood foraging habitat."
She said a calf pair was also seen, adding to the area's significance.
Frequent sightings since blue whales were first spotted off Cape Egmont in 2007 by a tug-boat skipper have led the Department of Conservation to conclude Taranaki waters between Puniho and Cape Egmont were a hot spot for the massive sea mammals on their migration route.
Blue whales are classified "migrant" under the New Zealand Threat Classification System, which means they do not get the same protection as other whales.
Last year, Dr Torres published a scientific paper that discussed the possibility of a blue-whale foraging ground along the bight.
The study linked the increase of blue whales in the area to large clouds of plankton. Field work was the "next logical step", she said.
"In addition to finding the whales, we were able to detect their prey visually on the surface and at depth using hydro-acoustics."
The research team has taken hundreds of photo, tissue samples, acoustic recordings, prey samples and oceanographic data.
Taranaki Daily News