Home' Advocate Communications : Fiordland Advocate 24 July 2009 Contents LOCAL NEWS
24 July, 2009 | Page 5
The Department of Conservation
is looking for public assistance in
its bid to crack the genetic code of
the southern right whale (tohora).
Department of Conservation
marine mammal officer Steve
Smith said the research project,
which relies on biopsy samples
from the whales, was nearing
completion, with only a handful
more samples needed.
“Fingers crossed we’ll manage to
obtain enough unique samples
To achieve that DOC wanted
members of the public to report
any sightings of southern right
whales as soon as possible.
“In the last six years 22 individual
genetic samples have been
obtained from whales around New
Zealand, largely thanks to tip-
offs from the public. We’re racing
against time to solve this mystery
so the quicker we can get the
thirty unique samples we need,
the better,” Mr Smith said.
Biopsy sampling would show if
there were genetic similarities
or differences between southern
right whale populations in New
Zealand and New Zealand’s sub-
Antarctic Islands. Determining
the New Zealand whales’ genetic
make-up was vital in managing
the population and assisting their
recovery, he said.
Southern right whales are in
serious peril around mainland
New Zealand with possibly very
few breeding females remaining.
To date no movement of whales
between the mainland and the
sub-Antarctic Islands has been
documented, so it’s possible the
whales around mainland New
Zealand are both geographically
and genetically separated from
those that breed further south.
“If the New Zealand population
is separate to New Zealand’s
sub-Antarctic Islands we need to
know. We can then take measures
to ensure the whales have the
right level of protection from any
potential threats, such as marine
farms, ship strikes and coastal
developments,” Mr Smith said.
A sighting of 10 whales in Te
Waewae Bay last month gave
DOC marine mammal staff a
great opportunity to increase the
number of samples. Two pods
of whales were reported by a
Southwest helicopter pilot flying
over Te Waewae Bay. Later that
afternoon DOC staff located the
whales and took identification
DOC Biodiversity Ranger Sue Lake
said individual whales could be
identified by the unique pattern
of the white callosities on their
“We also managed to get close
enough to the whales to collect
five biopsy samples using a dart
gun to collect a tiny piece of whale
skin. After the dart bounces off
the whale it floats and we scoop it
up. The samples have been sent
off to the University of Auckland to
analyse the DNA profiles.”
Southern right whales spend
a large portion of their winter
breeding months – June to
September – very close to
the shore in sheltered waters
sometimes resting on the ocean
floor with their blowholes above
“To have 10 whales in Te Waewae
at one time is really special and
both the pods included a calf,
which is great,” Ms Lake said.
“Due to their huge size and the
amount of time they spend close
to the shore it’s easy to spot them
when they are close to land. This
time of year is a rare opportunity
for members of the public to see
large whales and to help DOC with
our crucial research.”
DOC asks members of the public
to report sightings of the whales
to its hotline 0800 362 468 and,
where possible, to photograph the
Whale spotting — you can help
DOC coastal ranger Jim Fyfe, of
Otago, checking a biopsy dart
used to collect DNA samples from
endangered southern right whales.
Photo: Department of Conservation
Southern right whale showing lower jaw and callosities. Each whale has a unique
Photo: Department of Conservation
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Adult southern right whales are on average 15m long and, newborn
calves, between 4m and 6m.
They are mostly black in colour and can be identified by their lack of a
dorsal fin, a V-shaped blowhole spray, and white growths on their heads
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE ONE:
• Southern right whale sightings should be reported to DOC, preferably
as soon as possible after the sighting is made, on 0800 362 468.
• DOC needs to know the date, time and location of the sighting; the
number of whales; whether there were any calves; and their direction
• Photos help identify individual whales, especially those of the left
side of the head, and of the full body length.
• Whales should be approached slowly, quietly and cautiously, and no
closer than 50 metres, preferably from behind or parallel to them.
• Boaties are requested not to obstruct their path, cut through a group
or separate mothers from calves, and to turn off their engines if a
whale approaches their vessel.
• Sudden noises may startle the animals and should be avoided.
• Aircraft should keep a 150 metre distance from whales and not fly
directly over them.
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