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Blog: humpback whales on the Iselin Bank - 1 March

The University of Auckland Cetacean Ecology Team (aka the Whale Team) have been waiting patiently for the last few weeks for an opportunity to get close to some whales.

Humpback whale tail

Pippa Low, University of Auckland

As we have moved further north up the Iselin Bank the sightings of humpback whales have increased. Humpback whales are baleen whales that mainly feed on krill and require feeding grounds with high densities of prey to support their energetic needs. So, reassuringly, after spotting large swarms of krill on the echosounder, yesterday we saw whales close to the Tangaroa.

The University of Auckland Whale Team (Amelia Connell, Leena Riekkola, Rochelle Constantine and Pippa Low) waiting for the humpback whales to get a bit closer to the ship.

David Bowden, NIWA

Amelia Connell and Rochelle Constantine, University of Auckland, watching the humpback whales from the bow of R/V Tangaroa.

Jenny Visser

The University of Auckland Whale Team on the bow of the Tangaroa watching the two humpback whales, a mother and her nearly two-year old calf.

Arne Pallentin, NIWA

The whale team took this opportunity to head to the bow of the ship and get biopsy dart samples of skin and blubber from two of the whales. The whales keep their distance from the ship and are constantly moving so it takes a skilled marksperson to get an accurate shot at the flank of the whale. Leena Riekkola, a PhD student at the University of Auckland, is tasked with using the crossbow to fire the dart, which is attached to a line so they can pull the sample back safely. The skin and blubber samples are used for gene sequencing and hormone analysis so the research team, part of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership led by Rochelle Constantine can identify the whale that the sample comes from, examine relatedness of the whales to one another, and determine their age and whether the whale is pregnant.

A humpback whale spotted from the R/V Tangaroa. In this photo it is facing straight towards us and we can see the top of its head and mouth.

Pippa Low, University of Auckland

Humpback whale tail.

Pippa Low, University of Auckland

An awesome shot of the tail of the humpback whale taken by Pippa Low, University of Auckland, from the bow of the R/V Tangaroa.

Pippa Low, University of Auckland

A humpback whale. 

Pippa Low, University of Auckland.

It is important to get a clear photograph of the fluke of the whale because the patterning and scars on the underside of the tail can be used to tell the whales apart from one another morphologically. Pippa Low is a skilled wildlife photographer and has her timing well-tuned to capture the perfect identification photo.

The characters of the fluke of this humpback whale will be checked against a database of sightings to try and get a match to identify it.

David Bowden, NIWA