The Far Out Ocean Research Collective team are making record-breaking discoveries in the waters off Northland's coastline. They tell reporter Jenny Ling what it's all about.
They're a small group of marine scientists with the coolest job, venturing out into the wide blue yonder in search of weird and wonderful sea creatures.
These men and women of the Far Out Ocean Research Collective team bear witness to a host of rare cetaceans; dolphins that turn white as they scar and age, beaked whales, striped dolphins and false killer whales.
Recently they even spotted a few ginkgo toothed beaked whales while out on a week-long survey off Northland's coastline in January.
It was the first confirmed at-sea sighting in New Zealand – and possibly the southern hemisphere - of the species named because the shape of the male tooth looks like the leaf of a ginkgo tree.
They are shy around boats, and have deep diving habits, spending long periods of time underwater.
Most of the information about the elusive whales has been gleaned from beach strandings, with some species never seen or photographed alive.
During the same trip, the seven marine mammal and seabird specialists also spotted a new group of sperm whales, a young whale shark and several Bryde's whales, along with a group of Risso's dolphins and two pods of striped dolphins.
Not bad for a self-confessed "bunch of geeks" whose multi-day surveys often mean "many hours of staring at nothing and the occasional bit of excitement".
Far Out scientist and trustee Jochen Zaeschmar said the trip was "better than what we'd hoped".
"It was amazing.
"We're trying to create an interest and awareness in the offshore environment.
"What we're trying to show is we've got a lot of diversity out there which is very rare."
ZAESCHMAR IS mad about false killer whales.
The Paihia resident's sightings of them while taking tourists on overnight sailing cruises on his 22m yacht Manawanui is what prompted the establishment of the Far Out Ocean Research Collective in 2017.
He was keen to find out more about the species, pseudorca crassidens, which are actually members of the dolphin family.
"False killer whales are very rare so we'd see some other interesting stuff that wasn't our target species as well.
"So that's how the Far Out collective came about."
The group of five marine scientists who set up the not-for-profit trust each have a slightly different focus in their plight for ocean conservation.
Marta Guerra is focused on sperm whales, while Kerikeri marine ecologist Tom Brough, who works at Niwa, lends his spatial mapping expertise.
Lily Kozmian-Ledward is a mega fauna researcher who lives in Ōpua with her rescue dog Cooper, and marine biologist Sarah Dwyer works for the Department of Conservation on Great Barrier Island, also specialising in spatial mapping.
The group undertake several offshore surveys a year from Zaeschmar's yacht Manawanui, looking at ocean ecosystems that are just off the horizon where coastal vessels don't go.
Their studies of false killer whales, pilot and sperm whales, and oceanic bottlenose dolphin interactions, takes them from the North Cape all the way down to the Bay of Plenty.
Zaeschmar said they are looking at oceanographic factors, such as the amount of food in the water, currents, sea-mounds and canyons.
Along with marine mammal and mega fauna observations, the team also take seabird sightings, make underwater acoustic recordings and do some oceanographic sampling.
Data helps provide a picture of the complex interactions between the species and their environment.
It is collected and analysed, before being published in various scientific journals.
Key information is also passed onto DoC, and information is shared with the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, Manta Watch New Zealand, and shark expert Clinton Duffy.
The area they survey is incredibly diverse, Zaeschmar said.
"This is a pretty special place.
"To find these rare marine mammals and mega fauna is amazing.
"We are doing these surveys to figure out what is out here, learn more about these creatures, and monitor how they are doing under the changing ocean conditions.
"We don't see stuff all the time. But from a science point of view, getting nothing is also data."
FELLOW FAR Out trustee Dr Marta Guerra is an expert in sperm whale research based in Dunedin who studied the sperm whale population in Kaikoura for her PhD thesis.
She was thrilled with the sperm whale encounters during the January survey and on previous trips carried out in the same Northland patch of ocean last year.
The group spotted a large group of females and juveniles rather than males only, that are found in Kaikoura.
"We can identify individual sperm whales by the nicks and notches on the trailing edge of their flukes," she said.
"It's a whole new population that we were previously unaware of.
"We are learning and seeing something new every time we go out."
Guerra said these types of offshore multi-day surveys are difficult to do.
"Going 100km off the coast to observe and identify marine mammals and seabirds requires excellent weather conditions, and a suitable vessel, as well as the right equipment and expertise.
"Because of these reasons, systematic surveying has not been done in this region before."
Another first for Zaeschmar was finding that false killer whales form relationships with bottlenose dolphins - an entirely different species.
He made the discovery in 2013 while undertaking his masters degree at Massey University and his research was published in the prestigious Marine Mammal Science journal.
It also piqued the interest of the BBC who were on the lookout for content for Blue Planet II, a 2017 British nature documentary series on marine life narrated by David Attenborough.
Zaeschmar took the BBC crew out off Northland's coast between Cape Brett and Tauranga and they filmed the Far Out team collecting data.
Zaeschmar also helped write and edit their script.
So far, he has catalogued 116 individual false killer whales - and he knows them all.
There's Starbuck, who is the offspring of Moby, along with SpongeBob, Floppy, Jaggar, Elvis and Elton.
"They're all named after what their fin reminds me of.
"And because it takes a long time for them to be big enough to know if they're male or female, I try to give them asexual names.
"Sometimes I get it wrong; Moby turned out to be a female.
"But I have a very good idea who's who, we're up to the third generation.
"It's a privilege, and I've even started to worry about them, like children."
THE FAR Out crew generally fund the trips themselves and receive occasional grants from environmental groups. They are now on the lookout for sponsors.
Their next survey is from February 15 to 25 to the North Cape to study New Zealand storm petrels in collaboration with the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust and Auckland Museum.
They plan to carry out another trip in April to compare the results from January.
Zaeschmar said each journey provides "incredible value".
"When we started it was more for a sense of adventure and now it's turned into a sophisticated, professional project.
"It's opening people's eyes as to what is out there and the richness of species we have on our doorstop in Northland.
"It's an amazing part of water out there, it's really trying to get people to understand the open ocean isn't a vast expanse of water, it's just like the land that's come under water, you get valleys and mountains, and they're just as important to animals as those on land."
The Far Out team wants to expand their surveys to other parts of New Zealand in the future.
"We want it to be a long-term project, particularly with climate change," Zaeschmar said.
"We're trying to get the baseline information because things are changing everywhere in the world. We need to know what they are like, to know if they are changing."
If you spot any of these species while out on the water, report your sighting to 0800 FAR OUT (0800 327 688).