Things all right for rare whales

University of Otago scientists have returned to Dunedin from the Auckland Islands with a wealth of data reflecting the continuing recovery of southern right whales, including the most comprehensive recordings of their calls in New Zealand waters.

An 11-strong research team arrived on Wednesday aboard the university's marine science research vessel Polaris II after the vessel's first trip to the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands during winter.

The team, comprising Otago University, Department of Conservation, Otago Museum and Massey University scientists and staff, had been based at Port Ross, on the islands - 460km south of mainland New Zealand - for three weeks.

The university is leading a major three-year research project aiming to find vital information which could help the rare whales flourish again in New Zealand coastal waters.

Otago marine scientist Dr Steve Dawson and researcher Trudy Webster co-ordinated the making of the first sound recordings by New Zealanders of southern right whale calls.

Researchers also took more than 8000 photographs of whales, particularly in Port Ross, on Auckland Island, a sheltered area used for whale calving and mating.

Expedition leader and Otago marine science research fellow Dr Will Rayment said the trip was a "great success".

The Polaris II proved itself "a fantastic research platform", and generally good weather conditions resulted in little disruption to the planned multidisciplinary work, he said.

Dunedin scientist Dr Chris Lalas also led research on the winter diet of the critically endangered New Zealand sea lion.

Otago Museum natural science research and interpretation co-ordinator Lucy Rowe, who has a MSc in marine science, became the first Otago Museum staff member to take part in an Otago University expedition to the Auckland Islands, and hoped it would lead to more collaborative research in future.

In the 19th century, southern right whales were abundant in coastal New Zealand waters, but whalers hunted them nearly to extinction.

The whales had begun a tentative recovery in the Auckland Islands by the 1960s, and occasional sightings have been made off the Otago coast in recent years.



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