Tropical whale long way from home

By Lindy Laird

The discovery of a rare whale found dead on Ninety Mile Beach has caused waves of excitement among marine mammal experts.
The whale has been identified as a pygmy killer whale, a rare tropical species never before seen in New Zealand waters.
Yesterday, Te Papa Museum marine collections manager Anton van Helden was on his way from Wellington to Kaitaia where the carcass was being stored in a chiller by the Department of Conservation.
He described the discovery as, "unbelievable - a remarkable and wonderful find".
An Active Earth tour group came across the dead whale on December 24 just north of Te Paki Stream. Group leader Ali Perkins emailed photos to Northland whale expert Dr Ingrid Visser and marine conservationist Wade Doak who put them on his website.
Dr Visser had seen the species once before in Papua New Guinea waters.
"I was very certain what it was when I saw it but still contacted Anton [van Helden] for confirmation," she said.
"This is something very important, a fantastic find. It is really important that people do report any finds of marine mammals on our coast. This whale could easily have been wrongly identified as a pilot whale or a dead dolphin and left at that."
Mr van Helden said he hoped to carry out a necropsy - an autopsy on animals - in an attempt to unravel the mystery of how the pygmy killer whale came to be in Far North waters.
That work would begin after communications between DoC and local iwi. While the Marine Mammals Act allowed authorities to decide the carcass' fate, there were protocols to work through with Ngati Kuri and Te Aopouri, Mr Maxwell said.
Mr van Helden said he hoped the outcome would be one that enabled scientific discovery into a remarkable event.


"This being a species first for New Zealand, it's certainly worth the effort of driving from one end of the North Island to the other in the attempt," he said.
"We probably won't be looking for the cause of death as it might be too far gone to tell us that, but we could still get all sorts of information."
Dr Visser also said a necropsy might give insight into what was otherwise pure speculation about how the whale came to be in Northland waters.
"From the photos I've seen it didn't look skinny, it didn't look injured... possibly it died of cold. We just don't know."
As whales were social creatures possibilities included it having been attached to a pod of pilot whales travelling south from warmer Pacific waters, she said. It was not unusual for groups of mixed species groups to travel or hunt together.
The find brings the number of whale, dolphin and porpoise species recorded in New Zealand waters to 43.
Pygmy killer whales are thought to be non-migratory, but little is known about their migratory habits. The species, Feresa attenuata, generally lived in tropical, deep waters in open oceans. They are the smallest of all whales, growing to 2.8 metres and live in pods of up to 30. The word attenuata refers to the way their bodies taper.
Dr Visser said it was likened to the orca (in other parts of the world known as killer whales) only because it had a similar skull shape.
"There are no white patches on the side of the face or a white saddle across it as orca have, but it does have white lips which orca don't have."

- Northern Advocate

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