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Spreading the word about whales

Tuesday July 09, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

In Rarotonga, Nan Hauser is a household name.

(Granted, in Rarotonga, most local names are household names, but that’s beside the point.)

Nan, affectionately The Whale Lady, has been part of this community for 15 years. She exudes passion and enthusiasm for the biggest creatures in Cook Islands waters, and she’s been vocal about her campaign to save them from threats both natural and unnatural.

Her research features often in Cook Islands News and other local publications. She’s frequently smiling on TV. But I think what people in the Cook Islands don’t often realise is that Nan Hauser is also a household name elsewhere in this big world.

I had the privilege of seeing her in international action this past weekend at the W, a swanky hotel in Los Angeles. She spoke to a room full of Hollywood movers and shakers – producers, filmmakers, photographers, fashion industry A-listers, fellow conservationists – about the work she’s committed to doing in Rarotonga.

She talked about what she does – the thrill of satellite tagging, the difficulty of finding DNA samples, the precision it takes to differentiate between whale flukes.

She talked about the curious fact that while whales tend to return again and again to sites like Tonga and French Polynesia, in 15 years she’s recorded just two instances of whales revisiting the Cook Islands.

“For some reason we don’t see whales coming back,” she said, “so there are new whales every year using the Cook Islands as a corridor, not staying for long.”

She talked about global pressures on marine life, like the scary fact that 88 per cent of cetaceans will be affected by looming changes in water temperature.

She explained to her audience where the Cook Islands are on a map, and fielded questions from them like: “Is that really the population of Palmerston, or is that a typo on your slide?”

People were curious. They wanted to know about the Cook Islands, and they wanted to know how they could get there.

Without trying very hard, Nan is a one-woman marketing machine. She’s featured in documentaries, magazines, and newspapers around the world. She gives lectures across Oceania and in the US, where she spends several months of each year.

A major American broadcasting channel is coming to Rarotonga this month to film an hour-long segment on Nan and her research.

Just this week, media agencies received an alert from Conservation International, the global non-profit for which Nan is a marine fellow. Conservation International has been heavily promoting the Cook Islands marine park, and this week its alert contained footage of Nan talking about her involvement with the committee creating it.

The film features Nan discussing her research, most of which will inform the marine park management plan. It features her telling stories about whales’ behaviour – the way whales have families the way we do, the way they protect each other – and her risky run-ins with these great mammals.

“I’ve had whales lift the boat up; I’ve had them ram my boat; I’ve slid down the backs of whales,” she tells the camera. “But it’s really important to get these data.”

It’s important because whalers still operate and because whales still get caught in longlines. It’s important because climate change is a real, tangible threat.

It’s important because there are people who want to help conservationists like Nan save the world’s oceans and the creatures in them.

Last Friday, at Nan’s Los Angeles lecture, people were willing to open their pocketbooks. They wanted to help the Cook Islands zone their marine park in such a way that fishermen can still fish, but whales can safely migrate. They wanted to help the Cook Islands draft and enforce marine regulations that will protect whales and sharks and all marine creatures that inhabit our seas.

“This is a massive effort and it will make a huge difference,” Nan says of the marine park in her recent short film. It will make a huge difference, but only because of energy expended by people like her, by people who care.

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