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Public appeal for southern right whale sightings

24 June 2004

DOC appeal to public for southern right whale sightings

The public is being asked for the second year running to report sightings of southern right whales (tohora) to the Department of Conservation.

Between June to September each year, the whales are most likely to be seen around New Zealand coasts, when they may come close to shore.

The New Zealand population was believed to number around 30 individuals, of which as few as four may be females of breeding age, DOC marine mammal co-ordinator Rob Suisted said today.

“Spotting southern right whales is an impossible task for the few scientists doing the research, because there are so few of them, and we rely on and appreciate the public’s help in this.”

“Last year we managed to take 12 genetic samples from several southern right whales around New Zealand, largely thanks to tip-offs from the public, and we got a lot of good quality photographs for individual identification as well. That was a first for us.”

“These observations have doubled our knowledge of this rare and threatened marine mammal, but we need to repeat the success of last year if we are to determine their prospects for survival.”

“We know we had at least nine individuals visit New Zealand last year. If we see the same individuals this year, then maybe our population estimate is too high. If we see different whales, then the situation may be better than we had thought.”

While 410 individual tohora had been identified near the subantarctic islands south of New Zealand, there was no known overlap with the mainland population, suggesting that it may be a separate population or subspecies, Mr Suisted said.

“If this is true, New Zealand’s southern right whale is in serious peril. We urgently need more information about this population to improve our ability to protect them from being hit by ships and entangling in fishing gear.”

Right whales were so-called because they were the “right” whales to kill - large, slow-moving beasts that obligingly floated when dead and yielded large amounts of valuable oil, bone and baleen.

Once thought to number 16,000 in New Zealand waters, including the subantarctic, they had all but disappeared by 1860 because of whaling pressure.
In one winter season, in 1836, at least 97 whales were killed by crews from three whaling ships in Lyttelton Harbour alone.

Southern right whale sightings may be reported to DOC, preferably as soon as possible after the sighting is made, on 0800 DOCHOT line (0800 36 24 68), a 24-hour service. DOC needs to know the date, time and location of the sighting; the number of whales; whether there are any calves; and the direction of travel.

Photos help identify individual whales, especially of the left side of the head, and of the full body length.

Adults are on average 14.5m long, and newborn calves, between 4.5m and 6m. They are mostly black in colour and can be identified by their lack of a dorsal fin, a V-shaped blowhole spray, and white growths on their heads called callosities. Each whale has a unique callosity pattern.

Whales should be approached slowly, quietly and cautiously, and no closer than 50m, preferably from behind or parallel to them. Boaties are requested not to obstruct their path, cut through a group or separate mothers from calves, and to cut their engines if a whale approaches their vessel. Making sudden noises may startle the animals and should be avoided. Aircraft should keep a 150m distance from whales and not fly directly over them.

ENDS

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