Working with the mysteries of the sea

Department of Conservation —  04/02/2013

When whales strand or other marine animals appear where they are not supposed to DOC’s Nelson based marine technical advisor, Andrew Baxter, is the person to call on. He answers a few questions about the work he does at DOC…

Andrew taking a bit of R&R beside a whale-free Golden Bay beach.

Andrew taking a bit of R&R beside a whale-free Golden Bay beach

How did you become interested in marine biology?

I grew up on a mixed cropping and sheep farm in mid-Canterbury, miles from the sea, with a salmon fishing rod in one hand and a rifle in the other.  It would surely come as no surprise that I ended up following a career in marine biology!

I suppose my interest in marine biology began with family Christmas holidays as a kid at Kaikoura – plenty of rock pools to explore and fish to catch – and gradually unfolded while I was at Canterbury University from 1978-81.  Learning to dive at this time was also a big eye opener.  From there to Taranaki for a couple of years and then a few years in Wellington before heading to Nelson in 1987 to work for DOC where I have remained for more years than I care to count.

Unfortunately for many pilot whales, Farewell Spit is their final resting place.

Unfortunately for many pilot whales, Farewell Spit is their final resting place

What is it about the sea that presses your buttons?

Definitely its mysteries.  We know so little about it compared to the land – new things are being discovered all the time, from several new species each week to the intricate complexities and linkages that tie everything together.

Also the sea’s vulnerabilities.  The sea is hugely important to New Zealanders.  Yet people often take it for granted because it’s huge and it looks “fine” from the surface.  But take a closer look and it’s not as robust as we might otherwise wish to think.

Why the interest in marine mammals in particular?

My job involves everything from snails to whales.  However, with such a diverse array of marine mammals and the number of strandings we get, marine mammals can be a significant part of my job at times.

Volunteers and DOC staff work hand in hand at strandings.

Volunteers and DOC staff work hand in hand at strandings

If whales are so smart, how come so many of them strand themselves on beaches?

Many of course simply die at sea from natural causes and wash up on our shores.  Live strandings are more of a conundrum and there are many theories why whales and dolphins strand.  In a lot of cases I suspect there is not just one causative factor but rather two or more in combination.

Like us, whales breathe air, and like us, they presumably will have a strong aversion to drowning.  So when they become sick or injured a natural reaction will be to seek shallow water.  For highly social species including pilot whales their strong social bonds and natural instincts to look after one another can turn against them.  One sick individual can lead to a chain reaction and a mass stranding unfolds.

Accidents happen (even for whales) and for species which also echo-locate (e.g. pilot whales), gently shelving beaches like those in Golden Bay are particularly risky.  The whales’ sonar disappears into the distance rather than being reflected back and Farewell Spit forms the perfect whale trap.

What’s the first thing people should do when they come across a stranding?

Contact the Department of Conservation (0800 DOCHOT) and let us know all the details from location, species and number of animals to weather and sea conditions.

Whale strandings can attract many people, including volunteers willing to spend long and exhausting hours trying to refloat them.

Whale strandings can attract many people, including volunteers willing to spend long and exhausting hours trying to refloat them

And the second?

Be careful!  Whales (even the smaller ones) are hugely powerful and can cause serious injury if they lash out.  In particular, avoid the area around the tail.  If you are able to, keep the whales wet and covered with a sheet, avoiding the blow hole through which they breathe.

Are we any closer to figuring out how to stop whales from stranding in the first place?

Not really.  They are, after all, natural events.

People sometimes suggest putting in sonar reflectors, acoustic deterrent devices or underwater speakers that play orca sounds (or perhaps Barry Manilow music?). Aside from the question of cost, the difficulty is that whales are not totally stupid (despite what people might think from them stranding) and could just swim around or investigate them.

Several years ago we trialled the use of a “bubble curtain” – a compressor and a long perforated hose to create a wall of bubbles which reflect a whale’s sonar.  It worked initially, but once one whale discovered it was effectively an illusion by accidentally breaking through the “wall”, they all began to ignore it.

Loud acoustic devices or ones which play orca sounds could cause panic and drive whales ashore.  Also, we don’t want to drive away other species that inhabit coastal areas.

Scientific sampling following strandings can yield important scientific information.

Scientific sampling following strandings can yield important scientific information

If you could talk to whales, what are some of the first questions you’d ask them?  

Obviously: “why can’t you get your act together and not strand?”  It would also be good to ask them what they think about our management of the oceans, from noise, pollution and “scientific whaling” to tourism and fishing.  I also wonder if whales have forgiven humans for hunting some of them almost to extinction.

What is the strangest stranding you have attended?

A number of years ago I was phoned on Christmas morning about an orca stranded on Haulashore Island.  Foregoing bacon, eggs and hash browns which I had just cooked, and a bottle of cheap bubbly, I rushed down to Rocks Road with a colleague and some binoculars to check it out.  There looked to be a small orca on the cobble shore, but with a blustery south-westerly blowing it was very hard to get a good view.  Luckily a hardy kayaker checked it out and discovered it was an inflatable plastic orca which must have blown off Tahuna Beach.  After initially being “pumped up” to help rescue an orca, finding it was an inflatable whale was a bit of a let down.  Suffice to say we left a bit deflated.

Many species strand including smaller cetaceans (eg dolphins and pilot whales).

Many species strand including smaller cetaceans (eg dolphins and pilot whales)

At the end of a stranding, what do you most take away from it apart from exhaustion?

Depending on the outcome you can leave elated, frustrated or emotionally drained.  Making some hard decisions around euthanasia can be very challenging emotionally.  But the biggest thing I always take away from a large stranding is the sense of camaraderie from working alongside iwi, volunteers from near and far and other DOC staff.  Big strandings are a huge team effort.

What is it about New Zealanders’ treatment of the marine environment that depresses you the most?

The “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome, and the false presumption that the sea is vast and can cope with anything.

The attitude that it is always “someone else’s fault” is also frustrating.  We are only going to make a difference through people taking personal responsibility.  Even simple things such as not littering and sticking to the fisheries limits can make a huge difference if everyone does it.

Larger species also strand, including the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale.

Larger species also strand, including the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale

And what gives you the most hope?

There are some very clever and astute young people coming through the education system.  They are our biggest hope for the future.  Working with community groups like Te Korowai o Te Tai o Marokura in Kaikoura has also shown me the power of local communities taking responsibility for their own areas.

If you were the benevolent dictator of New Zealand, what are a few of the first things you’d do to make it a better place?

Assuming I also had an open cheque book, I would provide significant funding to all the health, social and environmental community groups that are trying so hard to make a difference often with so little.

If you were a marine mammal, what would you be and why?  

There are two options here.  The “Andrews’ beaked whale” (yes, there really is a whale called that) for no better reason than its obviously great name.  Though if I had to choose just one, I would pick orca (killer whale), simply because they are at the top of the food chain and don’t have to worry too much about anything else with sharp teeth and an empty stomach, except perhaps when young.