A whale of a time

One of a group of southern right whales approaches Polaris II near the Auckland Islands.
One of a group of southern right whales approaches Polaris II near the Auckland Islands. Photos: The Marine Mammal research group
Analysing data from southern right whale research are (from left) University of Otago marine science PhD student Marta Guerra, research associate Dr Maddalena Fumagalli, PhD student David Johnston, lecturer Dr Will Rayment, PhD student Tom Brough and head
(from left) University of Otago marine science PhD student Marta Guerra, research associate Dr Maddalena Fumagalli, PhD student David Johnston, lecturer Dr Will Rayment, PhD student Tom Brough and Prof Steve Dawson. Photo: Linda Robertson.
A researcher sets off a drone to take footage of southern right whales. Photo: Facebook.
A researcher sets off a drone to take footage of southern right whales. Photo: Facebook.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.
Southern Right Whales.

There's nothing quite like the smell of whale breath on your face in the morning.

''It's a musty, fishy smell,'' University of Otago marine science lecturer Will Rayment said.

''If you're downwind of a whale breath, then you'll definitely know all about it.''

While it seems like an unpleasant way to start your day, a team of University of Otago marine science department lecturers and students were revelling in the smell off the coast of the Auckland Islands, because it meant they were in the right place to study southern right whales.

Research trip leader Prof Steve Dawson said the group spent the past month off the coast of the subantarctic islands, collecting data on the condition of the mammals.

''The southern right whale population is a recovering population, and in order to better understand that process, we need data on the condition of individual whales in it.

''So we've developed a system which allows us to very precisely measure the shape of whales from an overhead drone.

''Their shape is really important. They're capital breeders - in other words, they feed up large for most of the year, but over the breeding season they don't feed at all.''

He said the condition they were in - how fat they were - was crucially important to understanding the health of the population.

He said there were populations of right whales around the world that were doing poorly.

''Our population is doing very well, but to understand what's happening to the population that is doing poorly, we need to compare it against something.

''Our population is the yard-stick for that comparison.''

He said their research also focused on the condition that capital breeders were in when they arrived at the breeding grounds, because it was an indicator of the health of the southern ocean's ecosystem.

He said the whales fed on tiny crustaceans called copepods.

''Those animals are very close to the basis of the Southern Ocean food chain.

''So we've got this way of indirectly measuring the health of the Southern Ocean food chain,'' he said.

The research gleaned from the recent trip was still to be analysed, but early indications were the recovering population was looking very healthy.

''There are a lot of whales down on the breeding grounds. Most of them seemed to be in really good condition. So early indications are very positive.''

He said the research was now in its second year of a three-year study.

john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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