Amazing images from 'magic' Otago expedition

A southern right whale breaches  in Port Ross at the northern end of the Auckland Islands. Photo...
A southern right whale breaches in Port Ross at the northern end of the Auckland Islands. Photo by Trudi Webster.
Deep cuts gouge the back of a southern right whale, seen during an expedition of the University...
Deep cuts gouge the back of a southern right whale, seen during an expedition of the University of Otago research vessel Polaris II. Photo by Tim Cole.
Inquisitive New Zealand sea lion pups in Laurie Harbour off the Auckland Islands. Photo by Trudi...
Inquisitive New Zealand sea lion pups in Laurie Harbour off the Auckland Islands. Photo by Trudi Webster.

A University of Otago-led expedition to the "untouched" Auckland Islands has returned with a wealth of data and amazing images of the wildlife which rule the isolated subantarctic archipelago.

Postdoctoral fellow Dr Will Rayment led a group of 12 scientists and crew, who have just returned from a 25-day trip to the Auckland Islands aboard the Otago University vessel Polaris II.

The trip uncovered an abundance of data about about the recovering population of southern right whales, the diet of New Zealand sea lions and the foraging behaviour of yellow-eyed penguins and Auckland Island shags, Dr Rayment said.

This was a wonderful opportunity to explore habitats largely untouched by man, he said.

"You really are in a really untouched habitat.

"It's the wildlife that is in charge down there. It's magic, it really is."

"We didn't see another soul down there, we didn't see any other fishing vessels or anyone else," he said.

They saw "very high densities" of southern right whales at Port Ross, a sheltered harbour at the northern end of the islands.

"We conducted photo-ID surveys on 21 days yielding more than 8000 digital images," he said.

The images would be used to estimate the population and growth rate of the whales in New Zealand waters, which were recovering after whaling decimated the population.

The team "sadly" found the first evidence of ship strike on a southern right whale in New Zealand waters.

"This is the first time we have seen a southern right whale in New Zealand waters with prop scars, and is a timely warning about the impacts the whales will face as their range overlaps more with human activities," he said.

Ship strike was the leading cause of mortality in the closely related North Atlantic right whale and would probably become more common in New Zealand waters as the whales recolonised waters off the mainland.

The team also recovered an autonomous seabed mounted acoustic recorder deployed the previous year, which has yielded more than 850 hours of recordings that will be used to investigate timing of arrival and departure of the whales from their wintering grounds at Port Ross.

He wanted to continue researching the population of southern right whales, which would "hopefully" mean more trips to the Auckland Island, Dr Rayment said.

The trip also investigated aspects of the winter diet of New Zealand sea lions, of which octopus was the most important, and the foraging habits of yellow-eyed penguins and Auckland Island shags.

vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

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