Part of my job is to collect and manage marine mammal sighting data. However, two weeks ago, I got the chance to get away from my day-to-day desk work and help out on the annual Cook Strait Whale Survey.
I was excited for the opportunity to see firsthand where the data comes from, and get some personal development and field experience to boot.
I was there during the first week of the survey. There were six of us volunteers (a mixture of DOC and non-DOC people) staying for a week—plus Carlos Olavarria (marine mammal scientist), John Gibbs (skipper), and Nadine Bott (organiser of the study) who would be on the island for the full month.
We spent half our day up at the lookout, drinking tea, laughing at the ex-whaler’s competitive banter and, of course, watching for whales through binoculars.
My highlight was watching the biggest animal species on the planet, a pair of blue whales, for a couple of hours.
The other half of my time was spent on boat standby, waiting for a whale to be spotted. Even then, the boat will only go out if the sea is calm enough.
Waiting for the boat to be called out was interesting. I had relaxation and free time but, at the same time, I was on the edge of my seat as I waited for the radio to go off. And every time I heard the crackle of voices on the radio my ears pricked up and my heart started to race. I started to stand and reach for my waterproofs, only to hear the weather forecast begin instead.
On my boat shifts I battled with an internal struggle of wanting to stay hydrated and not wanting to have to go toilet off the side of the boat if we did end up going to a whale—you never knew how long you might be out for.
Unfortunately for me, the boat was grounded on most of my shifts, which meant a lot of time to fill in. Fortunately, there were plenty of options here on the island: reading and sleeping were popular, but people also partook in other outdoor activities such as going for walks to check out the stunning landscapes, fishing, diving for kaimoana, visiting the old whaling station, feeding eels (a real highlight—those things were big), chopping firewood, and picking up litter from the beach.
It was a beautiful evening when I finally got out on the boat. We were following a pair of whales. It was worth the wait, despite the sea sickness.
On the boat, everyone helps to spot the whales and keep track of their location until they are in a position to have their photo, or a skin sample, taken. We all had a specific and essential role—be it photographer, biopsier, or dart retriever (that was me).
As a city girl, it took a few days to get used to living with strangers, travelling everywhere by mule, walking through mud, and having no internet.
By the end, I was comfortable in my surroundings—revelling in the escape from city life, and thoroughly enjoying the company of my fellow field mates. I’ve even started trying to convince my friends to come here to celebrate New Year’s.
Thanks to Nadine Bott for operating the survey and OMV for their support.
Yesterday, Wednesday, 1 July 2015, the Cook Strait Whale Project sighted their 100th whale—and they’re still counting, with more than a week to go!