It was a wintery July afternoon when I decided to get the kayak in the water for a quick session of exercise before the sun faded. Paddling out from PILOT BAY,  I passed through the shipping channel towards the middle of the harbour, and spotted a stationary boat, next to a large log bobbing around on the surface. At that time of day, a lot of recreational boaties are returning from their day out on the water and a BIG LOG connecting with the boat’s hull would ruin the day.

Pad­dling towards the boat to offer to drag it away, I noticed the log was no longer in sight. It turned out to be a Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion ves­sel, and the log was actu­al­ly a south­ern right whale. Amaz­ing! But there was a prob­lem. South­ern right whales are renowned for chill­ing out in shal­low water. This behe­moth had decid­ed to make our local, very busy boat­ing chan­nel his new hang­out spot which put him at seri­ous risk of being hit by an approach­ing boat.

The DOC crew and I hatched a plan. Since I hold a marine mam­mal per­mit, allow­ing me to get close to whales, This meant the guys on the boat could race ahead a few hun­dred metres to try slow down oncom­ing ves­sels, while I hung back with the whale, act­ing as a mark­er so he could be given a wide berth. The plan was set, when sud­den­ly the whale sur­faced from the murky water with­in a half a metre of my kayak. I was sprayed with water from his two blow­holes, which then closed quick­ly, and he start­ed to descend. His head was laden with cal­losi­ties in their own unique pat­tern, like a human thumb print. He sank back into the deep­er chan­nel. I was left in total awe, with an endur­ing image in my mind.

BUBBLE UP

South­ern right whales can be quite curi­ous by nature so I stayed alert. One swift flick from that mas­sive tail and you’d be in a whole world of pain, as evi­denced by the sheer move­ment of water as it passed by my kayak. My over­sized friend resur­faced next to me a few times, and at one stage when he was out of sight, I saw tiny bub­bles ris­ing up to the sur­face direct­ly below me as he drew up. Thank­ful­ly, I had moved away just in time because although only young, this thing was colos­sal.

As the sun began to fade to just a small glim­mer of light, the num­ber of boats com­ing home had slowed.

Every­one had shown the nine-metre juve­nile the great­est respect, mak­ing sure the ani­mal had plen­ty of room. But they were amazed at the sight of such a huge whale so close to the shore, in the har­bour.

Many years ago, it would have been a much more com­mon sight. With an incred­i­ble amount of thick blub­ber, a top speed of only around 17 kilo­me­tres per hour and the fact they float­ed when they died, they earned the ter­ri­ble name of the right whale: as in, the right whale to hunt. To me, the south­ern right whale has a sad his­to­ry of suf­fer­ing.

NEW HOPE

Dur­ing this hor­ri­fic time of whal­ing, around 35,000 whales were killed and num­bers dropped to a mere 150 or so. At one point, not a sin­gle south­ern right whale had been sight­ed in three decades. Thank­ful­ly, they are now pro­tect­ed, so see­ing this par­tic­u­lar whale in our har­bour felt like a bea­con of light and hope for num­bers are now around 3,000 and is slow climb­ing. How­ev­er, they are not out of the woods yet, and the biggest threat they face today is being seri­ous­ly hurt or killed by pass­ing boats.

There will be more encoun­ters between us and the­se gen­tle giants of the sea in the future, but it is imper­a­tive that we give them space to rest and feed. Also, keep at least 50 metres away from the ani­mals. We want the­se whales to feel com­fort­able when they arrive if they like a par­tic­u­lar area because it is has­sle free, then per­haps they’ll stick around for longer and we can enjoy see­ing them from the beach.

And remem­ber, if you see a log bob­bing around on the sur­face, be sure to slow down because you just nev­er know exact­ly what it might be.

I’d like to thank the boat­ies for their awe­some effort that day in stick­ing to the rules, great­ly reduc­ing stress on the ani­mal. Thanks also to the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion for their mea­sured and calm respon­se.

For more infor­ma­tion about shar­ing our coasts with marine mam­mals, vis­it: DOC.GOVT.NZ

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