Nathan Pettigrew — A southern right whale in the Tauranga Harbour

by | Mar 12, 2017 | Columns | 0 comments

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.

It was time for an adventure. My partner Karina, her mother (visiting from the States) and I packed every hatch of our two kayaks with sleeping bags, mats, tents, food, the whole shooting match, and headed to the South Island in search of marine life, kicking off with four days of epic kayaking in the Marlborough Sounds.

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