If you looked out over the sandy bays and coves of New Zealand a couple of hundred years ago you would have seen families of Southern Right Whales playing in the shallow waters. You would have also had the pleasure of watching female southern right whales giving birth in these ideal whale birthing waters. Then along came whaling and the whales disappeared.
First pioneer whales arrived back in 2005.
In 2005 the first southern right whales were spotted returning to their ancestral calving grounds around the coast of mainland New Zealand. Now a new paper has looked at the slow return of the whales to New Zealand and it’s coastal waters.The researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Auckland and other institutions who undertook the study are hopeful that these first pioneers will herald a much larger scale return of the whales over the coming years. There used to be thousands of them in New Zealand and they are now re-discovering their ancestral home.
There used to be thousands of them in New Zealand and they are now re-discovering their ancestral home.
While the first pioneers consisted of less than a dozen whales numbers have slowly increased to a few dozen. The researchers tested 7 of the whales and discovered that they came from the from the sub-Antarctic islands including the Auckland and Campbell Islands.
“We used DNA profiling to confirm that seven whales are now migrating between the sub-Antarctic islands and mainland New Zealand,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU who initiated a study of these whales in 1995.
“These are probably just the first pioneers,” Baker said. “The protected bays of New Zealand are excellent breeding grounds, and I suspect that we may soon see a pulse of new whales following the pioneers, to colonize their former habitat.”
30,000 whales before whaling began all had gone by 1960′s.
Before the start of the large-scale whaling in the region which reached it’s peak during the 1830′s and 1840′s it is thought that up to 30,000 whales made the winter migration between the islands of Antarctica and the bays of New Zealand. The last of the whales that came to New Zealand were thought to have been hunted by the Soviet whaling fleet during the 1960′s – despite hunting of right whales being banned internationally in 1937.
No Southern Right whales have been see around the New Zealand coast for decades. It had been thought that the memory of the calving and nursery grounds had been wiped from the memory of the whale population when the last of the local whales had been killed. Southern right whales have strong “maternal fidelity” in which the best locations for calving and bringing up calves are passed down the generations from mother to daughter.
“This maternal fidelity contributed to the vulnerability of these local populations, which were quickly hunted to extinction using only open boats and hand-held harpoons,” said Emma Carroll, lead author on the study and a doctoral student working with Baker, who has an adjunct appointment at the University of Auckland.
The researchers wrote in their report that “fidelity to calving grounds can be viewed as a type of cultural memory, and it seems the memory of the suitable calving ground can be lost along with the whales that formerly inhabited such areas.”
“The right whale is remarkably graceful, very spectacular to watch,” Baker said. “There used to be thousands of them in New Zealand and they are now re-discovering their ancestral home. It will be interesting to see what develops.”
The return of right whales could herald tourism boom.
If the whales do start to return to New Zealand in large numbers it could herald the start of a new tourism boom for local residents. In other countries around the world where the right whales congregate in numbers close to shore they have proved to be a popular attraction. Southern right whales are best seen in New Zealand around the Foveaux Strait and especially Preservation Inlet to Waewae Bay.
The whales are very popular among whale watchers as they have a playful personality and will often swim close to shore slapping their tails and breaching.
Sadly the Right whales – of which there is three species – were so named because they were the ideal and right whales to kill. This was because they could be killed by whalers in small boats that were restricted to coastal waters, the whales were unable to flee quickly in shallow waters and once killed the large stores of blubber in the whales meant that they floated.
If the whales do return in big numbers then parts of New Zealand, in particular the South Island, could become as popular with whale watchers as Hermanus in South Africa, Warrnambool in Australia or even Santa Catarina in Brazil which has a week long Right Whale Festival every September during the whale calving season.