Last month, local whale researcher Nan Hauser was joined in Rarotonga by University of Canterbury lecturer Travis Horton, National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s Alex Zerbini and Brazilian sharp-shooter Federico Sucunza to carry out the programme.
Hauser - the Director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation - described the endeavour as “the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my life” - due to the distance she was required to manoeuvre her boat to allow Sucunza to successfully implant the tag onto the massive mammals. As a result of their efforts, a total of seven whales are now being followed via satellite by Hauser and her research team, as the tags transmit movement data during selected hours to preserve their battery life.
The world-renowned researcher said the data will provide a ‘spatial reference’ of the whale’s movement - essentially a three-dimensional map of their travels through the immense ocean. Additionally, the team will be looking at the predictability of their migration routes.
So far, the tags are wielding some interesting results, and showing that there may be a lot more to learn about the different whales that choose to visit the Cooks every year.
One whale in particular has caught the team’s surprise as it’s swimming in an eastward direction, contrary to the expected westward migration taken by most other whales.
Another whale, ‘Beastie’, is an 80-year, 14 metre long humpback who was tagged on September 5 and is currently being observed as he hangs around off the coast of Rarotonga.
“He’s just so big, which is unusual because usually the females are bigger,” she said.
Beastie is described as a “scrapper” and a flirtatious creature, and was recently observed with a much younger female. Unfortunately, that relationship didn’t end so well according to the researchers.
“She dumped him,” said Hauser.
Retrieving additional data from her computer yesterday, a member of Hauser’s research team showed a tracking map of a whale named ‘Scar’, who was tagged on September 6.
Scar, described as an ‘escort’, is currently guiding a female and a calf as they swim in an expected west-ward direction.
“My friend in Niue will be able to look at its tag and check its condition,” said Hauser.
The tags used in the innovative programme are pricey, coming in at $3,600.
Hauser said it took years to accumulate enough money to buy seven of them, and she personally gathered the funds for most of the units by cleaning houses.
Additional tags were donated by the owners of Muri Beach Club Hotel and Peter Seligmann, head of Conservation International.
Hauser said they are currently determining whether the whales experience any adverse effects to the tags.
Based on their observations, the whales show no reaction when the tag strikes the blubber on the side of their bodies.
“Our biggest concern is that they do not interfere with the health of the whale,” she said.
The research included in the tracking programme will compliment existing knowledge about whale genetics and their singing abilities, she said.
“This research doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” said Hauser.