Humpback whales off Tutukaka Coast

By Peter de Graaf

Volunteers at a Northland marine conservation trust have had a close encounter with a pair of migrating humpback whales.

Silvia Streit was finishing her morning coffee at the Orca Research and Education Centre, on the clifftops between Matapouri and Tutukaka, when she saw a whale spout in the distance about 9am on Monday.

Marine mammal expert Ingrid Visser, of the Orca Research Trust, identified the source as a pair of humpback whales so, joined by Mrs Streit's husband Walter and fellow volunteer Robert Lehmann, they set off in an inflatable boat to find them.

They caught up with the adult whales about 1km offshore as they were heading north at a steady 8-10km/h. They followed them until dusk, finally parting company north of the Bay of Islands.

Dr Visser said one of the whales was particularly interested in the boat, repeatedly swimming in close to observe the inflatable and its crew. The whale was also breaching (leaping out of the water) and tail lobbing (slapping its tail on the surface).

Mrs Streit said seeing a whale close-up was on her bucket list, but she never expected to spend a day watching a whale breaching just 20m from the boat.

"The whole day was unbelievable," she said.

Photos of the underside of the whale's tail flukes, each of which has a unique pattern of pigmentation, would be sent to researchers to allow the whales to be identified. That knowledge would contribute towards understanding the humpbacks' annual migration from the Southern Ocean, past New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the South Pacific.

Dr Visser said New Zealand winter was the whale's peak migration time. This was also the time of year migrating whales became tangled in ropes and nets, as happened to two whales in Far North waters in 2010. Dr Visser urged fishers to pull in gear that wasn't needed, and keep lines on crayfish pots and nets short to reduce the chances of entanglement. That could prevent both loss of gear and harm to whales, she said.

Call 0800 SEE ORCA to report any orca or other marine mammal sightings.

- Northern Advocate

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