Whale watching: Oceania experience highlights work to do

Abigail Robinson holds a little bag of whale skin collected for its DNA (whales shed their skin as they swim around). Photo / Supplied
Abigail Robinson holds a little bag of whale skin collected for its DNA (whales shed their skin as they swim around). Photo / Supplied

An Auckland biodiversity student is part of a team of scientists researching and monitoring humpback whales and their migration in the Cook Islands.

Unitec student Abigail Robinson was offered the chance to meet the "whale lady," Nan Hauser, and her team at the Centre for Cetacean Research and Conservation in 2014.

Ms Hauser has been based in the Pacific for nearly 20 years, researching whales and raising awareness of their plight.

The opportunity was too good to for Ms Robinson to pass up, and what was supposed to be a two week holiday turned into a research project which she has offered ongoing help with.

Ms Robinson helps the organisation with population monitoring, gathering DNA, observing whale behaviour, recording video and audio footage from both in the water and from drones, and satellite tagging.

She said the research, which included gathering skin humpback whales had shed as they swam in the ocean, had been amazing.

Abigail Robinson in the water with a whale. Photo / Supplied
Abigail Robinson in the water with a whale. Photo / Supplied

"Most of the research we do is focused on humpbacks," she said.

"They are still recovering from the illegal Soviet whaling era but the Oceania population we research are not recovering at the rate they should be compared to other populations, and they're still threatened."

Ms Robinson said there were multiple possible reasons for the slow rejuvenation, one being commercial fishing operations.

She said Taiwanese, American and Chinese fishing boats were known to shoot or bludgeon whales caught in their nets.

"We didn't realise how common it was and then we interviewed an ex-long line fisherman and he told us a bit more. Basically they're out in the open ocean and there's no one to keep them in check.

"He told us pilot whales know the sound of long liner engines and associate it with food, so they will come up and start predating on the fish. So the fishermen shoot at them and they'd sometimes shoot up to nine before they'd get the picture and swim off.

One current focus of the Centre's work is in developing a better understanding of the humpback whales' migrations so that fishermen can avoid certain areas during the migratory season.

Humpback whales migrate to Oceania after feeding in Antarctica over the summer.
The researchers have found that most of the whales they have tagged head westward from Rarotonga to places like Samoa, Tonga, Niue and Fiji.

"The calves often get tangled in long lines in their migration, so the aim is to establish safe migration paths," said Ms Robinson.

"It's the whole science to policy thing. The idea is that we can get areas that during migration season they can't put long lines down, rather than just expecting them to stop long lining completely during the migration season, which is not going to happen. It's about meeting halfway a lot of the time."

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