Hauraki Gulf: Thar she blows

By Helen Van Berkel

A friendly whale provides an entertaining display of water from its spout. Photo / Supplied
A friendly whale provides an entertaining display of water from its spout. Photo / Supplied

A spout of water and vapour on the horizon is a familiar icon for readers of swashbuckling whaling adventures. A century ago, it meant a call of "thar she blows" from the young lad in the crow's nest high above the rigging, and the chase would be on for one of these hugely lucrative leviathans of the deep.

The flimsy, wooden boats of yore hunted, almost to extinction, the whales which inspired early Maori to give Whangaparaoa its name, Bay of Whales. And it is whales we are hoping to see today from the gently heaving deck of Auckland's Whale and Dolphin Safari catamaran. Nowadays, it is tourists and scientific researchers who crowd the gleaming chrome railings of this 20m vessel, hoping for a glimpse of just one of these magnificent creatures.

The New Zealand east coast is a known migratory corridor for humpbacks, orca, and southern right whales. Rare orca visits into the inner Waitemata Harbour draw crowds to Tamaki Drive, but few people know a population of Bryde's whales have made the Hauraki Gulf their home, on the doorstep of Auckland City.

The safari skippers know what to look for and we have barely left Waitemata Harbour before we see a churning white mass of gannets and other hungry seabirds plunging into the sea. Below the shrieking horde will be a "boil-up" of fish, rounded up by schools of bottlenose dolphins that also call Hauraki Gulf home. Whales are often drawn to the underwater percussions of the diving seabirds and arrive for a free feed.

As our vessel approaches the feeding frenzy, the first of the dolphins appears. Soon, hundreds of the playful creatures are leaping around the boat. On board it is silent, bar the whirring of digital cameras. Hundreds of seabirds dive and plunge, somehow avoiding midair collisions - and we cast the occasional wary eye above to avoid any slimy surprises from the sated birds.

At the first "boil-up" we had to be content with dolphins. The whales didn't show. Nor did they on the second.

There are few whales to be seen in the Hauraki Gulf due to over-exploitation by the whale industry since the late 1700s. In 1839, 150 American whaling ships were hauling their quarry out of our waters. Records at the time refer to a harvest of more than 35,000 barrels of whale oil in a single season. More than 20 species of mammals make the Gulf their home. The dolphins, seals and black and white orca can be seen on almost any given day out here, almost within sight of the tanks and gantries of Auckland's port.

And before the whalers thousands upon thousands of humpback, sperm and minke whales passed through the Gulf on their migratory journeys around the Pacific. The waters of the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf are rich in phytoplankton, a feast for hungry whales. After criss-crossing the Gulf for almost three hours, we are finally rewarded with a spout off the southern side of Whangaparaoa Peninsula, likely from a Bryde's (pronounced Brooder's) whale, reckons the skipper. A baleen whale, Bryde's whales grow to up about 15m long. They too were once extensively hunted - Japan has caught about 50 of them under special permit every year since 2000 according to International Whaling Commission figures - but about 50 are believed to still live in the Gulf.

Little is known about the habits and lifestyle of Bryde's whales. Now, international researchers and students from New Zealand universities and Department of Conservation are often on-board the whale safari boat, trying to find out more about our oceanic neighbours before they disappear forever.

Although no longer hunted, Bryde's whales remain at risk in the Gulf from container ships heading in and out of the Port of Auckland. As we approach the spout, it's clear another boil-up is under way. Two small tin boats have anchored here, obviously in the hope of cashing in on the fish bounty roiling just below the surface. As we approach, a third fisherman zips up, and drops his anchor.

I'm sure our faces were a picture of confusion as our skipper suddenly throttled off and moved away from the cacophony. Strict rules regarding the whale-watching boats, he explained, preclude the presence of too many boats within close distance of dolphins or whales. We are rewarded when the skipper points out flat, oily patches on the sea surface. These are the distinctive footprints of a surfaced whale. And then, there it is. A vast wall of grey-black flesh surfaces beside the boat. For the next half hour or so, the whale circles the boat, surfacing, spouting, diving, seemingly showing off, perhaps curious about us or perhaps enjoying the warmth of a lazy Saturday afternoon in a sunny Hauraki Gulf.

* The Explore NZ Whale and Dolphin Safari takes about 4 hours, with two departures a day, October to April, and one a day from May to September. Prices are $150 for adults, $100 for children (5-15 years) or $390 for a family (2 adults/2 children).

* See explorenz.co.nz for more information.

- Herald on Sunday

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