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Right time for whales to return to New Zealand's calving grounds

By Martin Leggett - 27 Jun 2011 12:0:0 GMT
Right time for whales to return to New Zealand's calving grounds

They may once have been the 'right' whales to kill, when hunting was in full swing a century ago, but now appears to be the right time for a return of the right whale, off of the coast of New Zealand. After a five-decade absence of their acrobatic antics, a study in the latest Marine Ecology Progress Series has confirmed that southern right whales are rediscovering their calving grounds in the sheltered sandy coves of New Zealand. Hopes are high that it could be the start of a renaissance of the whales in this small patch of the southern hemisphere's oceans.

The right whale is known as amongst the gentlest of the sea's giants, apt to playful displays of tail-slapping and leaping, fully breached, out of the waters. At one time there numbered tens of thousands of these beautiful baleen whales, who came to the shallow seas close to New Zealand, in order to give birth - and to see their calves through those first vulnerable weeks. But their fondness for shallow waters, their slow speed and their large size - growing up to 60 feet in length and weighing up to 100 tons - made them easy prey for whalers.

Throughout the 19th century, they were easily and remorselessly hunted, often by men in small boats using hand-held harpoons, which severely hacked into their numbers. Then, in the 1960's, illegal hunting by Soviet whalers killed off the last right whales around the main islands of New Zealand. But they were never fully exterminated from their more southerly feeding grounds, around the scattered Sub-Antarctic Isles, hundreds of miles to the south.

It now appears that intrepid members of those remaining pods are making their way back to their ancestral home. That's according to the DNA sampling undertook by scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) and the University of Auckland. "We used DNA profiling to confirm that seven whales are now migrating between the sub-Antarctic islands and mainland New Zealand," said Scott Baker from the Marie Mammal unit of OSU.

That is a fantastic turn of events for those wanting to see the return of the playful right whales to New Zealand's waters. Right whales are thought to memorize the best breeding grounds, with mothers passing this information on to their offspring - a so-called 'maternal fidelity to calving grounds'. When the whales were hunted into local extinction, that memory was lost.

But now there may be an opportunity to re-establish these areas, as prime spots for right whale calving. As the news of the rediscovered calving grounds is passed back to other whales groups around the sub-Antarctic islands, it could boost numbers further. "These are probably just the first pioneers," Baker said. "The protected bays of New Zealand are excellent breeding grounds, and I suspect that we may soon see a pulse of new whales following the pioneers, to colonize their former habitat."

Top Image Credit: Right Whale © Eduardo Rivero