Passengers aboard the wildlife cruise vessel Monarch got a spectacular surprise when a pod of orcas swam within 30m of their boat near the entrance to Otago Harbour.
Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Tours crew member Shaun Wilson, who is also doing post-graduate study on orcas at the University of Otago, said they witnessed the pod of three whales passing Taiaroa Head on their way out of the harbour yesterday afternoon.
It was not that common for orca to enter Otago Harbour.
“It generally happens a couple of times a year and from what I have seen from photographs of previous times they have come in, it is always the same group of animals.”
He and the passengers were thrilled to get such a close-up view of the impressive sea creatures.
“It was really amazing.
“I’ve worked with Monarch for three years and this was the first time I have seen them up this close here in Dunedin.
“So it’s pretty special.”
Mr Wilson could not confirm a report the whales were back in Otago Harbour today, but said it was possible.
Otago Peninsula Trust marketing manager Sophie Barker, who was aboard the Monarch and captured some video of the whales, said it was an “amazing” experience.
She believed the orcas, which went into “silent mode” as they approached Taiaroa Head, may have been hunting baby seals.
“They were possibly looking for afternoon tea.”
She had already seen orca from the shore this year.
Killer whales, or orcas, are fast, fearsome predators, but comparatively little is known about the species.
Earlier this month a rare recording of the vocalisations of killer whales was recorded off the east coast of Tasmania.
“To date there are very, very few recordings of killer whale vocalisations across Australia, certainly fewer than 20 recordings,” said David Donnelley, coordinator of Killer Whales Australia.
Researchers had dropped a camera over the side of a boat at Eaglehawk Neck to record video of a pod, when the microphone picked up the vocalisations.
“Very, very difficult to know what they were talking about. The meaning of the calls or the noises that you heard on that recording will almost be uninterpretable because we know so little about the communication of killer whales in Australian waters,” Mr Donnelley said.
“We really don’t know why they do or don’t call in a lot of cases, why they may call a little bit or infrequently is a mystery to everybody, including the acousticians.
“Killer whales are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as ‘data deficient’ so we have no idea how many there are worldwide, or even their population at the moment,” he said.
Where killer whales travel and what they eat matters, because as an ‘apex predator’, one at the top of the food chain, they can have a strong influence on marine system and biodiversity.
“If we can be informed as to what they are eating, we can look at conflict issues, so if we eat the same things they eat, those sorts of things, plus it gives us an idea of where they go,” he said.
He said killer whales “pinch fish from fishing boats’ long lines”.
“They tend to take blue eye fish, they’re an expensive, oily fish we like to eat, and killer whales like to eat them too.
“They’re quite selective, they’ll leave fish like ling on the line, but they’ll take blue eye off, so it’s really interesting that they can tell the difference between high quality fish and low quality fish.
“And they’re really careful too, they pull the fish of real gently, they don’t hit the gear or anything like that.
“[Killer whales] are hard to see, they’re free-ranging marine mammals and so they spend 90 per cent of their time under water and they also don’t take prey on the surface very much, so any interactions you’re likely to see are very rare so they’ll take prey mostly underwater, fish, other marine mammals and they’re quite elusive.”
Citizen scientists taking photos of killer whales around Australia are helping with Mr Sellers’ research, as images of fins are compared in a database to help identify individual whales.
Mr Sellers takes biopsy samples of the known whales to study their diets.
“Specifically I use a chemical technique called signature fatty acid analysis where we take small biopsies from killer whales and we look at the percentage of fatty acids in the tissue and it tells us what they’ve been eating over a period of time,” he said.
The not-for-profit group Killer Whales Australia helped track a pod down the east coast of Tasmania, until Mr Sellers could locate them by boat off Eaglehawk Neck.
“In this instance we just got photo IDs and what we aim to do is biopsy the animals. There was a calf in this pod, so we wouldn’t biopsy, if there’s no calves present, then we will look at deploying a dart and taking a small tissue biopsy from the animal and then analysing that, matching it to a fin ID in the catalogue and then we have an idea of what that animal eats,” he said.
Mr Sellers aims use satellite tagging this summer and get more samples from killer whales in Western Australia, as well as examine French sub-Antarctic samples before completing his PhD.
“So we will probably write up two or three research papers on their diet and range, and from that work with fisheries too and advise them about what we’ve found,” he said.
Earlier this month a rare audio recording of killer whales in the wild was captured off Tasmania’s south east, and Mr Sellers said despite years of studying the species it was the first time he had heard it.
The Department of Conservation was notified of an orca stranding at Whangaparaoa, Cape Runaway in the Eastern Bay of Plenty around 2pm yesterday and were told four of the six Orca were already dead.
“We immediately contacted local resident, Joe Rua who we have worked with on previous strandings, who has extensive experience in this area, to establish what support was needed,” says Operations Manager Jade King-Hazel.
“At no stage did we ever say the area was too remote for DOC to attend. Our plan was always to get a response team into the area to work with locals on refloating the remaining Orca and working with hapū on burial of the dead animals.
DOC remained in contact with Mr Rua, and planned to fly a small response team by helicopter into the area, but weather conditions prevented this. Around 4pm DOC was notified of the successful refloating of the smaller of the two Orca still alive by local tangata whenua. The plan was to refloat the larger Orca on the high tide around 6am this morning.
“A DOC seven-person response team from Whakatane and Opotiki was briefed this morning at 5am. They were on the road to Whangaparaoa shortly after, however the remaining Orca had died overnight.
“Safety of staff and volunteers working on these operations is paramount and our standard operating procedure is to leave the animals during the hours of darkness, and return to try and refloat in daylight hours and on the high tide,” says Ms King-Hazel.
Ms King-Hazel was very appreciative of tangata whenua and local response.
“We are always overwhelmed at the fantastic support we get from the communities around the Coast, when it comes to these types of incidents. Joe with the support of others did a great job at rescuing the smaller animal late yesterday afternoon. We appreciate the ongoing support of logistics and tikanga shared with the Department’s team.
“We look forward to continuing to grow this relationship over the coming months and learn what further support we can give these communities to be empowered to help protect these majestic taonga.”
The Department is working with the local hapū and Te Rūnanga o Te Whānau ā Apanui in relation to plans for the burial of the dead Orca. DOC is also liaising with the New Zealand Orca Research Trust to establish what information and samples they may require.
An orca which washed up on an Auckland beach on Tuesday did not die from blunt force trauma after being hit by a boat, further investigation has found.
The adult male was found on Whatipu Beach and initially was thought to have suffered blunt force trauma to the head.
While a post-mortem by a team at Massey University was able to rule out some theories, the Department of Conservation (DoC) wasn’t notified about the orca for several hours, meaning it was too decomposed for the team to find a definite cause of death.
“We were able to identify that live-stranding wasn’t involved, and to identify that blunt-force trauma wasn’t able to be caused by a boat,” Dr Karen Stockin, Massey’s coastal-marine research group director, told Newshub.
“Unfortunately if the animal had been in a fresher condition when we were notified to be able to post-mortem it, there could have been evidence in the tissue that it indicated had some underlying health issue.
“Because it was highly decomposed, we couldn’t get that level of information from it.”
But they were able to identify it from its dorsal fin. The orca is believed to be Nibbles, known to the Orca Research Trust and with a stranding history of stranding itself while chasing prey.
Dr Stockin doesn’t think that’s what caused its death.
“These animals have to feed quite regularly… You would usually expect usually, even if not very freshly ingested prey in the stomach, you would expect some element of prey digested remains in some of the other secondary changes,” she said.
“The key thing with this animal is that we weren’t able to find evidence of feeding at all – there was nothing in any of the chambers.”
She said that could be possible if Nibbles had live-stranded, but because they already ruled that out it hinted to an underlying issue.
It’s likely Nibbles died at sea and its body washed ashore – but we will probably never find out why.
DoC marine ranger Krista Hupman told Newshub the case shows how important it is DoC is alerted to a washed-up marine mammal.
“If we don’t hear from members of the public we don’t know about it and therefore we’re not able to make the best use of this animal,” she said.
“Use might be a strange word to use, but we find out most of our information about animals that are apex predators, like killer whales, from strandings, because it’s really hard to find that information at sea.
“If we don’t get there as soon as possible we could miss that important information.”
It’s believed Nibbles initially washed up around 9am Monday morning, but DoC wasn’t alerted until around 3:30pm that day.
By the time a ranger got out there, the Massey team was assembled and permission was obtained by iwi to perform an autopsy, it was night time, too dark to work with and tides adding another complication.
They could only get out to take samples in the morning. By then the corpse had decomposed to the point they couldn’t identify a cause of death.
“The equivalent of a six or seven hour difference in the post-mortem could have been the difference in us being able to determine an underlying health issue versus not being able to do that,” Dr Stockin said.
Dr Rankin says if anyone sees a stranded animal, or sees an animal about to strand, they should tell the Department of Conservation as soon as possible.
Killer whales are considered nationally critical in New Zealand and their known threats include fisheries interaction and boat strike, and anyone who accidentally kills or injuries a marine mammal has to report the incident to DoC or a fishery officer within 48 hours.
A vessel travelling over five knots could cause severe damage to a whale or a dolphin, but travelling above 15 knots would result in a likely death.
First Orca Whale spotted in Akaroa Harbour this season
Black Cat Cruises staff spotted the first orca of the season in Akaroa Harbour this week, a month earlier than the first spotting last year.
Black Cat Cruises Sales & Marketing Manager Natasha Lombart says that although technically there is no orca season in New Zealand, Black Cat Cruises have a few orca sightings each year and they tend to happen in the spring.
“Most people don’t know, that with the exception of human beings, orca are the most widely distributed mammal on earth,” says Lombart.
“The pod of orca our team saw in the Harbour today comprised of a mother and her calf, one large male, two juveniles and possibly another male. Females and males differ in length, with males being longer and bulkier than females. Females have smaller, more curved dorsal fins, and smaller flippers.”
The first spotting comes on the back of confirmation from Trip Advisor and their booking agent Viatour that Black Cat Cruises are not included in a ban, recently announced by TripAdvisor, that it will stop promoting tours that fail to meet animal welfare guidelines, particularly those involving “physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species”.
“As a certified SMART (Sustainable Marine Mammal Actions in Recreation and Tourism) and eco-tourism operator we applaud Trip Advisor’s move. Black Cat Cruises were never included in Trip Advisor’s “no touching of wild animals” policy, whereby it will no longer sell tickets to attractions where travellers come into physical contact with captive, wild or endangered animals.
“We already comply with their environmental regulations”, Lombart said. “Unlike many overseas operators, tours in New Zealand do not allow people to hold onto the dolphins, and nor should they.”