Archives For whales

Today’s photo of the week is of two humpback whales and a pod of dusky dolphins travelling near the Kaikoura Coast.


The Department of Conservation is currently conducting a research project that monitors the northern migration of humpback whales through the Cook Strait. This will be the eleventh annual Cook Strait Whale Survey.

The survey aims to determine how humpback whales are recovering since whaling ended. The survey has already recorded 33 humpback whales and 1 blue whale.

This photo was taken by Rob Pine.

This week is Seaweek (2-10 March), so to celebrate, we share an interview with sea lover and Technical Advisor (Marine), Andrew Baxter.

Andrew Baxter beside a whale-free Golden Bay beach.

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. 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.

Learning to dive at this time was also a big eye opener. From there I went to Taranaki for a couple of years, and then had 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).

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 think.

A blue whale that washed up on the West Coast.

A blue whale that washed up on the West Coast, just north of the Patutau river

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.

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 a 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 a species that also echo-locates, 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.

Volunteers and DOC staff work hand in hand at strandings.

Volunteers and DOC staff work hand in hand at strandings

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

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

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 they breathe through.

A smaller cetacean species that stranded on a beach.

Many species strand, from smaller cetaceans (e.g. dolphins and pilot whales) through to the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale

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

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.

Many people helping to refloat whales at a stranding.

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

What is the strangest stranding you have attended? 

A number of years ago I was phoned on Christmas morning about an orca stranded on HaulashoreIsland. Foregoing bacon, eggs and hash browns (that 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.

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 require 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.

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.

Taking samples from a dead whale.

Taking samples from a dead whale.

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 an 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.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa marine mammal expert Anton van Helden’s interest was sparked just before Christmas when I sent him photos of a dead beaked whale washed up south of Haast. From the photos he couldn’t be sure what species it was, but had a hunch that it was something quite rare and special. So my colleague Neil Freer and I headed out to get a skin sample to send up to Auckland University for DNA testing.

Collecting a skin sample for DNA analysis to identify this species

The excitement was tinged with sadness, as a local fishing crew at Jackson Bay had tried and failed to save this whale a couple of days before it turned up dead. Early morning on Friday 25th November they spotted a small whale stranded on the rocks in a pool of blood and managed to re-float it. Then on Sunday the Haast school principal Liz Hawker sent this photo of a dog investigating a carcass on the Waiatoto spit.

Local pooch investigates an interesting discovery on the Waiatoto spit (Photo courtesy of Liz Hawker)

In order to keep the carcass from disappearing into the Tasman Sea local councillor and farmer Kerry Eggling was enlisted to move it up into the scrub, where it was laid on a sheet of filter cloth to catch any small bones. Then we left it to decompose while we waited for news of the species ID from scientists Rochelle Constantine and Emma Carroll at Auckland University.

Local Kerry Eggling provides the muscle to move this 1.4 tonne beast up above the high tide mark

Stages of decomposition

Over the next few weeks this 1.4 tonne mass of blubber gradually disintegrated into a pile of bones and gloop.

The carcass was placed on filter cloth in November to catch any small bones. It had already been pecked by gulls

By December 27th bugs and larger scavengers had exposed parts of the skeleton

On the 24th January most of the flesh had rotted away to gloop

Then after Christmas we got the news that it was indeed a female True’s beaked whale, a species never before seen in New Zealand or Pacific Ocean waters.

True Facts

The True’s Beaked Whale is named after F.W. True of the US National Museum, who first scientifically described this species in 1913.  Until now, True’s beaked whale was known only from about 20 dead animals and a handful of live sightings, in the southern Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean.

Beaked whales (known to Maori as hakura) are a group of deep-diving whales that usually live out in the open ocean.  They are often hard to see at sea because they spend very little time at the surface and usually stay away from the coast.  They mostly feed on squid, but also eat fish, using in-built sonar to find their prey in the dark waters of the deep ocean.  Before it died, this True’s Beaked Whale was probably feeding in the deep underwater canyons that come close in to the South Westland coast.

Chart showing the deep underwater canyons of the South Westland coast. (Chart courtesy of NIWA)

The only teeth these whales have are two tusks at the tip of their lower jaw.  Only in the males do these tusks poke out from their gums, and they are probably used to attract females as well as to battle other males.   The tusks are not visible in females.

When we went to get a skin sample gulls were scavenging the carcass and had already pecked out an eye

Decomposition and scavengers uncovered the beak structure, but no teeth could be seen

It was important to preserve such a rare find to improve our understanding of these elusive creatures, so DOC marine technical support officer Don Neale, skilled whale dissector Ramari Stewart and Te Runanga o Makaawhio representative Nathanieal Scott all gave up their Waitangi day holiday to recover the skeleton for Te Papa museum.

Ramari begins the work with a karakia and hangs a piece of whale flesh nearby for protection

Ramari carries a lot of experience with the tikanga (practices) and matauranga maori (traditional knowledge) of whale strandings.  A lot of the tikanga behind the work helps to ensure the safety of the kaimahi (workers) and a successful result. 

The tikanga includes setting out “clean” and “dirty” areas on the site so that the sometimes hazardous paru (muck) is confined to a small area and as few of the kaimahi as necessary. 

Designated “clean kaimahi” Don keeps Ramari and Nathanieal hydrated

This was absolutely essential, as the filter sheet hadn’t worked as well as hoped to drain away bodily fluids and the carcass was still pretty gloopy and very, very stinky. Ramari warned that anaerobic bacteria in the carcass can be very hazardous.

Ramari insisted this pool of rotting flesh was the nastiest she had worked with. Even worse than recovering bones from pickled whales buried for up to 15 years! The paru made it very hard to sift out the more delicate bones like small flipper fragments.

The exclamation of “paru” was heard many times during the day!

When she got into collecting flipper bones from the muck just below the rib cage Ramari was a bit puzzled to find some small bones that didn’t seem to belong. Then all of a sudden we heard her exclaim “now I know what’s going on!” These tiny bones didn’t belong to the dead female after all, we realised that two of these rare True’s beaked whales had perished on the Waiatoto spit. The adult female had been pregnant when she died.

Ramari recognises part of the tiny jawbone of the whale’s foetus

While we were working Ramari called the whale Niho Ngore alluding to the female True’s lack of teeth. Te Runanga o Makaawhio will officially name her at a later date.

Before the heavy skull could be safely moved a lot of flesh had to be cut away

Loading the skeleton to send to Hokitika for further cleaning and preservation

Cleaning up the skeleton will take a few more months yet, but when she’s ready Niho Ngore and her baby will be sent with a blessing from Te Runanga o Makaawhio to rest in the nation’s precious collections of biological and cultural treasures at Te Papa Tongarewa.  There they will be available for scientists and visitors to find out more about this rare animal and its place in the world’s oceans.