New Zealander of the Year Finalist: Dr Ingrid Visser

By Geoff Cumming

Every day this week in news, business and sport we feature the finalists for the Herald New Zealander of the Year. Top honours will appear in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.

Dr Ingrid Visser. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Dr Ingrid Visser. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Hers is the celebrity face of orca research and whale sightings. When there are strandings around the northern coast, Dr Ingrid Visser will often lend a hand and her profile has raised public support for the emotionally and physically draining rescue effort.

The Tutukaka-based marine scientist, 44, fell in love with orcas at a young age - which may have stemmed from childhood years sailing the oceans on her parents' 17m ketch.

She admits the giant dolphins are an obsession. In a canvas profile in 2004, writer Janet McAllister explained her willingness to give chase at any hour of the night if her orca hotline is called. "She'll throw off her orca duvet, throw on orca underwear, jeans and an orca T-shirt over her orca tattoo, troop past orca mobiles, inflated plastic orca and orca posters on her way from the loft to the kitchen, where she might drink from an orca mug before ... zooming off to find orca by moonlight."

This year, Visser lent a hand at two mass strandings - the first in August when 58 pilot whales grounded on Karikari Beach in Doubtless Bay and 49 died.

A month later, when 70 pilot whales stranded at Spirits Bay, 21 survivors were trucked south and refloated in a DoC-coordinated rescue effort. Fourteen were saved.

Days after the Spirits Bay stranding, she helped DoC staff free a humpback whale entangled in rope in Doubtless Bay.

She has drawn flak for swimming with the mammals and for anthropomorphism - naming the animals and giving them human traits. Her media profile (a BBC film crew is following her) bemuses marine mammal experts undertaking serious research with little funding or recognition. But no one disputes her passion and enthusiasm.

Visser spends some of each year escorting whale and dolphin watching tours, part of the fees helping to fund her Orca Research Trust. She publishes occasional scientific papers on orca feeding habits and threats from longline fishing.

In May she took part in the refloating off Ruakaka of an orca she named Putita, which had previously been rescued at Mangawhai.

"I got the call there was a stranded orca and when I got down here I knew straight away who it was. I've known this guy since he was a kid," she told the Northern Advocate.

"His mum and brother were sitting out there waiting for him. I know all of these whales ... they are my whanau. It doesn't get any better than this." Geoff Cumming

- NZ Herald

We would like to hear from you. Who do you think is a worthy New Zealander of the Year for 2010? Email us at newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz

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