When a whale brought Wellington to a halt

Department of Conservation —  14/12/2018

By Hannah Hendriks, Marine Species Support Officer.

Winter was an exciting time for whale watchers in Wellington, and a busy time for DOC. Over the winter months we were treated to two exciting encounters of the whale kind in Wellington Harbour.

Early in July, the harbour was visited by a lone southern right whale, probably a sub-adult. He was affectionately named ‘Matariki’ by the public, as his visit coincided with the Māori new year celebrations.

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The Wellington whale was known for his acrobatics – breaching, tail slapping, and spy hopping. 📷: Freya Hjorvarsdottir

Matariki really liked to put on a show! Onlookers were delighted by the numerous breaches, slaps, and lobs that were on display over the nine days he spent in the harbour, and further three days on Wellington’s south coast.

Wellingtonians were so enamoured with Matariki that he had his own Facebook page, a kids colouring competition (127 entries), merchandise, and inspired plenty of memes. The whole city got on board.

‘Matariki the Wellington Whale’ facebook page ran a colouring competition that received 127 entries. The winning entry is shown top right.

‘Matariki the Wellington Whale’ facebook page ran a colouring competition that received 127 entries. The winning entry is shown top right.

Then we had the matter of the fireworks. I’m sure this was the first time DOC had to consult on a fireworks show due to a whale, and we made international news. Consulting with a New Zealand whale researcher, we formed our advice that the noise from the fireworks display would be unlikely to harm the whale, but it could cause it to react unexpectedly, and the increased vessel traffic in the harbour could pose a risk to the whale and observers alike. In the end it was the council’s decision, and they chose to postpone (see our full advice to Wellington City Council).

Hitching a ride on a NIWA research boat, DOC ranger Colin Giddy was able to collect a small skin sample, a biopsy, from the whale which allowed researchers from the University of Auckland to determine that it was male. This sample will add to the 750 sample strong catalogue of southern right whale DNA from New Zealand and contribute to research by Emma Carroll under a Royal Society Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.

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Researchers from NIWA and DOC got a bit of a surprise from the curious whale while out collecting a biopsy sample. Reminder: If you don’t have a permit, you must keep 50m from whales and swimming is prohibited. 📷: Karl Halvorsen.

The city again came to a brief standstill a few weeks later when a mother and calf southern right whale came into the harbour for a day or so. This was potentially the first record of an endangered southern right whale bringing a calf into the harbour since being decimated by whaling. Another mother and calf pair were sighted along the Kapiti coast at the same time. Neither pair stuck around long but they incited hope in us that southern right whales are recovering well from over a century of whaling activity and starting to return to old haunts. Maybe one day we will see breeding in Wellington Harbour again.

Southern right whale mother and calf seen in Wellington Harbour in August. Note photo was taken in breach of Marine Mammals Protection Regulations –drones cannot be flown closer than 150m from any marine mammal without a permit.

Southern right whale mother and calf seen in Wellington Harbour in August. Note: photo was taken in breach of Marine Mammals Protection Regulations –drones cannot be flown closer than 150m from any marine mammal without a permit. 📷: Dwight Lorenzen

The Kapiti/Wellington district office implemented a Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) to manage the response. We were able to join forces with the Police, Maritime NZ, Harbourmaster, Wellington City Council and NIWA to monitor the animal and water users, and provide educational material about the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations. We’d like to thank all who were involved, as it truly took a team effort to ensure this taonga was safe for all to enjoy.

One response to When a whale brought Wellington to a halt

  1. 

    A mother and calf southern right whale were in Evans Bay for a day in 1986.