Record year for whale spotting survey

Department of Conservation —  20/07/2015

By Trish Grant, Communications Advisor

The Cook Strait Whale Survey had an amazing run this year spotting a record 137 humpback whales, a rare white whale known as Migaloo and a newborn calf.

A humpback whale swimming off Arapawa Island.

One of 137 humpback whales spotted during the survey

The sighting of a rare white humpback whale was a big surprise for the whale survey team and news of it went global.

The whale was identified by comparing photos showing its distinctive dorsal fin as being the famous Migaloo, a whale usually seen off the coast of Australia. This year he stopped by New Zealand instead on the annual humpback migration from Antarctica to South Pacific breeding grounds.

Only four white humpback whales have been reported in the world. Migaloo (Aboriginal for ‘white fella’) is the most famous. He is thought to have fathered two white calves that have been making appearances along Australia’s east coast.

Whale spotters on Arapawa Island.

Whale spotters on Arapawa Island

The Cook Strait Whale Survey has been assessing humpback whale recovery since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1964 and aims to estimate the size of our humpback population.

The count of 137 humpback whales over this year’s four-week survey spectacularly surpassed the survey’s previous highest tally of 106 humpbacks in 2012. The team also broke its record for the highest number of humpbacks in a day with 27 spotted on 21 June.

The whale survey crew.

The whale survey crew

The higher numbers of humpback whales being seen in New Zealand indicates their population is recovering. It’s possible we are now getting an overflow of whales from east Australia, as suggested by the sighting of Migaloo. It is exciting to see these beautiful whales increasing in our waters so everyone can experience them in their backyard as we once did before.

Humpback whale tail slap.

Tail slap

We were also thrilled to see a newborn humpback calf which was only the second reported in our waters. The first was also seen during the survey, in 2010. Both were likely to have been born prematurely. We marvelled at how lucky we were to witness such a miracle as a newborn whale.

Humpback whale and calf.

Humpback whale and calf

The survey is carried out with the help of DOC staff and volunteers, including six former whalers whose invaluable whale spotting skills are now used to help save whales.