Counting whales: My week on Arapawa Island

Department of Conservation —  02/07/2015

Hannah Hendricks. By Hannah Hendriks, Marine Conservation Technician

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.

Arapawa Island.

Arapawa Island

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.

Hannah Hendriks' gumboots on the Arapawa Island wharf.

Waiting at the wharf

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.

Arapawa Island wharf.

Arapawa Island wharf

From this vantage point I had the joy of watching sperm whales, humpback whales, pods of dolphins, and albatross.

My highlight was watching the biggest animal species on the planet, a pair of blue whales, for a couple of hours.

Blue whale.

Blue whale

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.

Whale spotters at the base on Arapawa Island.

Watching for whales

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.

Feeding eels on Arapawa Island.

The massive Arapawa eels

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).

Heading out to spot whales on the boat.

On a boat

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.

Humpback whale.

Humpback whale

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!

Find out more by following Cook Strait Whale Project on Facebook and Twitter.

5 responses to Counting whales: My week on Arapawa Island

    Anne Coplestone 25/07/2015 at 11:34 am

    I would love to put that experience on my bucket list, (maybe minus the boat trips) is 74 too old to volunteer?


    Hi Hannah, that’s no good being sea sick doing something you enjoy. I used to get sick in two hours and then I found these magic sea sick pills. They are called the Paihia Bombs. You take one and then another an hour later. You can get them next time from the Paihia chemist at (09) 402 7034. They cost a bit but they work! See ya, Jim.


    That would be a dream job for me. I love watching cetaceans in their natural habitat. Last year I saw a humpback whale from the Interislander ferry.


      Hopefully, as humpbacks continue to recover from commercial whaling, you’ll see many more! The Cook Strait Whale Survey has had a spectacularly high count of humpback whales this year, with 122 spotted up till the end of yesterday, considerably surpassing its previous highest of tally of 106 humpbacks in 2012.