Mugged by whales

Welcome back to Raoul! Today we encountered many more humpbacks than our previous days here, and by far the most sociable and boisterous whales we’ve yet seen. Most of our whales during the last few days have been shy and avoidant, staying underwater for long periods between breaths. Today it was party time. We encountered several pods of six to eight animals each, but when surrounding the boat these were more of a chaotic, exuberant mass of whale than any kind of orderly group. Many of these were younger ‘sub-adults’ which at times showed huge inquisitiveness towards our boats, twisting and spy-hopping to get a better look at us. Mostly, however, they were interested in each other, and tolerated our observations while they tail-slapped, rolled and launched themselves into the air. Interestingly, many of today’s whales had long interactions with a large pod of bottlenose dolphins – including a humpback calf, which played with the dolphins for upwards of half an hour while its mother looked on.

The whales were

The last few days we have been on the water at first light, and today’s plentitude of whales meant that Simon was able to deploy two tags within a few hours. Today we also managed to biopsy three animals and photo-identify several others. Eliot and Bill from the crew of the Braveheart displayed some stellar boat driving by backing us quickly away from a couple of overly feisty whales. The wind has dropped (for now) and sunburn has begun to make its reappearance amongst the team. A good day, with a lot of data to work through tonight.

On a more sobering note, this morning one of our boat teams re-sighted a humpback that we first saw two days ago, on our first day at Raoul. This means that the migrating whales are temporarily resident in the waters around the island, at least for short periods – something not necessarily expected in a migratory corridor. Unfortunately when the whale was re-sighted this morning it had a heavy mooring line looped around its midsection, which we know it did not have two days ago. Amongst the team we have been calling this whale ‘Ropey’. Entanglement in human debris, especially discarded ropes and fishing gear, is a major threat to marine mammals worldwide. It was a sad surprise to see this in such a remote and ecologically rich area as the Kermadecs.

Along with many others in Aotearoa, this week the expedition team has been celebrating the announcement that the Kermadec Islands will form the core of one of the world’s biggest marine protected areas in 2016. Ropey is a reminder that so many threats to the natural world, at sea or on land, cannot simply be shut out by setting borders around a location, no matter how special that place may be.

By James Tremlett

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4 Responses to “Mugged by whales”

  1. Alistair[AJ] Peach

    What type of rope was around the whale viz poly sisal or nylon and approx what diameter ?

    • admin

      The rope is most likely an old piece of braided polypropylene mooring line. It’s encrusted with a lot of life so has been floating in the sea for some time before this whale became entangled in it.

  2. Patricia Hammond

    Were you able to remove the mooring rope from around Ropey’s mid-section.

    • admin

      There is no way for us to remove this rope. The whales have a large personal space and it’s a challenge to get close to them let alone remove the line. It was swimming well and we can only hope the rope is loosely over the whale and slides off in the near future.


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