The Great Humpback Whale Trail field work is now completed. Our two weeks at Raoul has been in the planning stages for many years – but good things take time. In 2010, I was part of a Southern Ocean Research Partnership dedicated non-lethal whale research voyage to Antarctica in the hope we would find the Oceania whales’ feeding grounds. We found a lot of Australian whales so we had to come up with a new plan. In 2012, I had the privilege of joining the Sir Peter Blake Trust on its first Young Environment Leaders voyage to Raoul Island. The Pew Foundation had been working hard to get the 200 nm Kermadec Islands area declared a Marine Protected Area, an important place for New Zealand but also an important place for our recovering humpback whales on their southern migration. I jumped at the chance when Bronwen mentioned that I could join the SPBT to see whether we could actually conduct field work on whales at Raoul. I feel like I have come full circle because the new Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary was announced as we arrived here – a particularly good start to our work.
The wonderful artist and poet Gregory O’Brien once talked about “his quarrel with whales”. He has not seen a whale as his visit to Raoul did not coincide with the humpbacks, but I know that they are everything he thinks they are. My quarrel with whales is different; they provide a great challenge for scientists as every year they range over thousands of kilometres across some of the most inaccessible southern waters – this provides immense challenges for us. Perhaps my quarrel is with humans and how we thought it was okay to kill so many throughout the 1900s so that today, despite over 50 years of protection, they are still struggling to recover from our actions. The sea does not provide an endless bounty.
We deployed 25 satellite tags that will tell us about the whales’ journey through the South Pacific to their Antarctic feeding grounds – these whales are hungry now after around seven months of fasting. We collected 85 tissue samples that will tell us about the whales’ breeding grounds, their sex, who they are related to, their age and what they feed on when in Antarctic waters. We have around 140 whales individually identified by the unique pattern of marks on the underside of their flukes and eight song samples – this information allows us to ascertain their breeding grounds and measure one of the largest scale transfers of information via whale song across the Pacific region. So much information that spans the entire range of these whales lives. Our team of seven researchers has worked very hard; as the saying goes – the harder you work, the luckier you get. We are lucky. Now we will bring together all kinds of technology, analysis and thinking to make sense of the whales’ voyage now that ours is complete. It’s an ambitious project to study whales from the very top of New Zealand (Raoul Island) to the very bottom of New Zealand (Antarctica). Thank you to the Ministry for Primary Industries, Australian Antarctic Division, Pew Foundation, The University of Auckland, Conservation International, Institut de Recherche pur Developpement – France, Blue Planet Marine, the Auckland Museum and Operation Cetaces – New Caledonia for generously supporting this research and to the most excellent crew of the Braveheart. Finally thanks to you for following us, we will continue to post maps of their progress so look in from time to time. We will be posting some video highlights of our voyage in a few days’ time.
By Rochelle Constantine – University of Auckland