Welcome to Banks Peninsula, home of The Hector’s dolphins and eco-tourism pioneers Black Cat Cruises

Monthly Archives: January 2017

Hector’s Dolphin Research: Scientific Gizmos Galore

By Tom Brough;

Whilst this strange ‘summer’ weather still limits some of our boat work in the more remote areas of Banks Peninsula, our research teams have been making the most of good weather windows and getting some solid work done.

We’ve been retrieving and redeploying devices called TPODs that are permanently moored around the Peninsula (see picture). At present we have 11 TPOD’s moored around the peninusla, from Birdlings Flat to Lyttelton and everywhere in between. We bought these around 10 years ago for the price of around $3,000 each.

These handy gadgets record the sounds of Hector’s dolphins and so can tell us about the locations on the Peninsula that the dolphins prefer.

Because dolphins make particular sounds called ‘buzzes’ when foraging, TPODs can also tell us how often dolphins are foraging in particular areas. The current deployment of TPODs has been in the water since September and have had to put up with two 10m+ swell events during the last month; causing no small about of anxiety to our researchers!

We have also been continuing out our routine photo-ID surveys of the Banks Peninsula coastline. Finding and photographing dolphins with natural marks in their dorsal fins allows us to keep tabs on the number of dolphin in the Banks Peninsula population. Occasionally, we can identify dolphins by slightly stranger means.

A dolphin we regularly see on the north side of the Peninsula, often following trawlers off Lyttelton Harbour. The dolphin is nicknamed ‘mouthy’ and for some reason seems to breathe through its mouth rather than its blowhole.

We recently published a paper on how this could occur; it being the first time this strange behaviour has been observed in the wild.

Understanding the dolphins’ habitat and the reasons they are found in particular places is one of our current research questions.

To answer this we deploy all kinds of scientific gizmos to tell us more about the areas the dolphins use more frequently.

This device (see picture), nicknamed Roberto, gives us a salinity and temperature profile of the water column as it is lowered to near the sea floor. Roberto also shows how much phytoplankton is in the water and measures dissolved oxygen. Having this kind of information allows us to understand and so better protect the important habitat of these special dolphins.

Fingers are crossed for better weather as we head into February when we will start looking at dolphin prey distribution, sediment sampling, and nutrient loads. Stay tuned!

Tom works for the New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust

The New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust was launched in 1992 by researchers Associate Professors Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson, along with Trust Patron Sir Geoffrey Palmer to foster research and effective conservation of whales and dolphins in New Zealand. The Trusts long-term goal is; “To enhance the current knowledge of behavioural ecology, distribution and genetic diversity of New Zealand’s whales and dolphins and help create informed management decisions”.

Follow their work @hectorsdolphin on twitter

or on Facebook @whaledolphintrust

Don’t forget we offer Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruises every single day of the year that is protected by a Hector’s dolphin sighting guarantee, or you can come and cruise again with us for free. We donate a portion of every single ticket sale back towards the eductaion and research of Hector’s dolphins.


Waitangi Day Commemorations in Okains Bay

If you are thinking of heading over to Akaroa or the peninsula over the weekend then be sure to make time for this. Thanks to akaroa.com for the below article. Head to the website to find out whats going on in and around Akaroa and the bays.

Event date: Monday, February 6, 2017

Brief Description
Nau mai, Haere mai. Join us at the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum for a family day to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Highlights include a powhiri (traditional welcome), hangi lunch, children’s races and the paddling of our magnificent waka on the Opara River at 1pm.

View the Museum’s amazing collections and enjoy continuous demonstrations all day including bread baking in a traditional clay oven, master weavers, wood chopping and sheep shearing. Crafts, stalls, pony rides, lolly scramble, sausage sizzle, espresso coffee, garden bar, cafeteria and more!

The Waitangi Day commemorations at Okains Bay are the largest and longest standing in the South Island, with 2017 being the 42nd consecutive commemoration.

Details and Contact

Entrance Adults $10, Children $2

Please bring cash. No ATM available.

Gates open at 10am. Powhiri (traditional welcome) commences at 10:30am.

Please phone the Okains Bay Museum for more details. 03 304 8611.

Location Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum

Emai: info@okainsbaymuseum.co.nz
Phone: 03 304 8611

Website: Okains Bay Maori & Colonial Museum

Akaroa; Swimming With Dolphins With Carmen Huter

International blogger Carmen Huter came to Akaroa as her last stop on her New Zealand adventure. Carmen is a wonderful blogger and photographer and kindly shared some her stunning Akaroa photographs with us…along with her thoughts on what makes Swimming With Dolphins in Akaroa so special. Being from a landlocked country myself, anything to do with open water is highly captivating to my Austrian mind. When my best friend (of over 20 years, may I add!) finally made her way over to Aotearoa, water activities took top priority. Naturally, I kept the best for last. So, on our final morning on the South Island together, Miriam gave me a puzzled look when I instructed her to pack her togs at 6amOnce aboard our Black Cat cruise, the smile on her face seemed glued on permanently. Frankly, so did mine! The beauty about looking for dolphins, especially when they’re the world’s smallest, in the wild is the excitement, the anticipation, and the reward of the unexpected. One morning, you might come across 50, the next it could be just 5. Believe me when I say, that all you need to make your heart and eyes light up is just one of these wonderfully loving beings to swim around you. For a moment, everything around me stood still. Floating in the water, I watched as the inquisitive wee dolphin had a good look around, before getting on with her (or his?) day. A moment of pure joy and serenity. Remember, no aquarium, no tank, no Seaworld can replicate the wild conditions of the sea. The sea that is home to creatures so unique and friendly, you might just never want to leave. I, for one, didn’t.“

Follow Carmen’s Instagram Here 

Follow Black Cat Cruises Instagram here

Find out more about Swimming With Dolphins with us in Akaroa here 

For complete wanderlust and travel inspiration check out Carmen’s website and follow her blog!

Thanks for visiting Akaroa, Carmen and for coming out on Akaroa harbour with us to swim with the endangered Hector’s dolphins.

We also loved your shots from around our French Village..and look forward to seeing where you travel to next. Bon Voyage!

Hector’s Dolphin Research; Best Summer Day So Far……

World leading marine mammal experts Professors Steve Dawson and Liz Slooten are currently in Akaroa carrying out Hector’s Dolphin research. They have given us an exclusive sneak peak into what daily life is like for them on the peninsula….

”After a summer of unstable weather, the day has dawned calm and sunny, and promised to stay that way. We hit the water soon after seven, and head out of the harbour towards Birdlings Flat, where Banks Peninsula meets the Canterbury plains.

Our aim is to cover the south coast, so we barely slow for the dolphins we see in Akaroa harbour. Once at the heads, we’re “on effort” travelling at a slow planing speed in our 6.6m rigid-hulled inflatable, and stopping for any dolphins we see.

It’s flat calm. Virtually no swell, and perfect sighting conditions. The first group, off Squally Bay, is diffuse – spread over a couple of hundred metres. They’re busy – feeding, but still coming over to the boat occasionally. With them is a large bunch of spotted shags. The dolphins and shags are diving steeply, probably for the same prey. There’s a dark mark on our echsounder showing a dense prey aggregation at 15-20m deep. The dolphins prey mostly on small fish – surprisingly small, in fact most fish taken are only a few cm long.

Identifying Hector’s Dolphins

We are here to photograph dolphins that have individually distinctive natural marks – usually nicks from the dorsal fin. We use these like tags, they tell us who is who, and of course who goes where, with whom. More importantly resightings tell us how often females breed (every 2-3 years), and how long the live (25-30 years). Indeed monitoring change in survival rate is the main way that we keep tabs on whether the poplation is doing okay. These dolphins had a very tough time in the 1970s and 80s, when many hundreds were caught in gillnets and trawls. Thanks to inshore restrictions on these fishing methods, they are doing much better now, but still too many are caught for the population to recover. The population is about a third of its original size.

The next few groups also have shags in attendance, and are busy feeding. There have been only a few marked dolphins so far, but we manage to get their pictures. Dolphin photo-ID is a bit like photographing sport. The dolphins move quickly and erratically, and the dorsal fin is above the surface for about a second. If you haven’t had your coffee, you’ll miss the shot.

Since the dolphins are often found very close inshore, we go into each of the small bays. In one of the bays, we find a shag behaving oddly. Mostly, they fly off when you get close. But this one was preoccupied. It had caught a decent-sized banded wrasse, and spent the next several minutes trying to swallow it. Successfully! Noteably, it didn’t fly off, instead it slowly swam to shore. I doubt it could have flown at all.


The next few dolphin groups are harder to work with. They’re in stealth mode, not really very interested in the boat. When close, they seem to like to surface at bad angles – we need our pictures to be side-on. Our strategy here is to stop, and have a break. Often, they’ll get curious and come over. So far we have pictures of several individuals with rather subtle marks, but this way we get the picture of the best ID of the day. It’s a dolphin we’ve known since 2007, when we noted (from its size) that it was then at least 2 years old. So it’s 12 or 13 years old now – about 40 in human years. We don’t know what caused the large cut in its dorsal fin, but this mark has not changed in a decade.

The number of dolphins we see on these alongshore surveys is very variable. Small changes in distribution, as they follow their food around, mean that some days we can see 200 or so, but the next day, just a few. While Hector’s dolphins have small home ranges for a dolphin, they still move around over tens of kilometres. That’s why we measure population change via measuring survival rate.

We eventually get to Birdlings Flat, at the base of the Peninsula. We turn for home, about 19 nautical miles away (35km). It’s still flat calm. It’s been a great day. Now we go back to sort out the data and get prepped to do it all again.”

Prof Steve Dawson & Prof Liz Slooten

ORCASOME! Wild Orca in beautiful Akaroa

First orca pod spotted in Akaroa Harbour for 2017

Our guests and staff were delighted to spot a pod of 10 orca including two young calves in Akaroa Harbour this time last week.

This was the first reported sighting of orca off the coast of the South Island so far this month.

More than 80 local and international passengers aboard the 1.30pm Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise rushed for their cameras after our skipper Julian Yates sighted the pod near the Akaroa Lighthouse.

“The pod of orca we came across included one alpha male, a second male with a damaged dorsal fin, four females, two juveniles and two calves that were approximately one or 2-years-old,” Yates said.

“The younger orca were curiously approaching and hanging around our cruise boat while the males stayed distant and led the pod into Daemons Bay. It was here that we found the second male that was missing part of his dorsal fin. Dorsal fins provide stability to orca when swimming but it didn’t seem to be affecting him.”

Orca whales are very intelligent animals that are well-organised and follow highly complex social structures within their pods which often consist of large groups of family members that can span several generations.

While there is not a typical orca migration season in New Zealand, Black Cat Cruises usually report a number of sightings each year in Akaroa Harbour with the majority occurring in spring.The first orca of the 2016 season were sighted in Akaroa Harbour by Black Cat Cruises in October.

Our staff can determine the sex of orca by analysing the mammal’s physical characteristics. Males typically grow between seven and eight metres long and weigh up to 5.5 tonnes whereas females are smaller reaching approximately six metres in length and up to 3.6 tonnes in weight. Males also have a distinctive dorsal fin up to 1.8 metres tall. The fin of females is shorter (about 0.9 metres) and more curved.

Our Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise on board photographer Jono described the encounter as “the best orca sighting we’ve ever had” with the viewing lasting about 20 minutes.

“We imagine the orca went into the bay to hunt stingray. On our return trip we saw a second pod that had been spotted by another boat. We weren’t sure of the size of this pod as they were travelling north very quickly. Our passengers also saw the Endangered Hector’s Dolphin on the tour so they got to see the world’s smallest and largest members of the dolphin family.

Multiple Orca Sightings In Akaroa

Black Cat Cruises’ passengers aboard the following 3.40pm Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise saw two pods of orca, along with a second alpha male. The pod was described as being “even more inquisitive and playful, interacting around the boat”.
Our skipper Julian recognised the second alpha male from the earlier orca sighting due to his distinct dorsal fin markings. This pod was returning to Akaroa Harbour.

Viewing Wildlife Safely

Black Cat Cruises was the first eco-tourism operator in Canterbury to receive a Sustainable Marine Mammal Actions in Recreation and Tourism (SMART) certification from the Department of Conservation (DOC) in 2015.

SMART is a voluntary collaboration between commercial boat operators and the DOC for the protection of marine mammals in New Zealand. It aims to promote responsible behaviour around dolphins, whales and seals by boat operators.

To ensure the viewing was safe and unobtrusive, Julian slowed down the catamaran at the first sighting and turned off the engines in Daemons Bay so passengers could view and marvel one of the world’s largest apex predators.

The engines were also turned off when orca approached the back of the boat.

To learn more about responsible actions around marine mammals we urge you to read the following link….


What do we know about Orca?

• Orcas – often referred to as killer whales – are one of well-recognised animals in the world due to their large size and distinct black and white markings.
• Orcas are the largest animal in the dolphin family and one of the only known cetaceans to attack sharks, whales and other large marine animals.
• Having no known predators, orcas are known as an apex or alpha predator, which means it is able to hunt freely without fear of being attacked by another marine animal.
• Orcas are protected in New Zealand waters under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
• DOC is beginning to understand that there are different types of orca throughout the world, and work on defining these types is currently underway. Even within New Zealand it has been proposed that there are three different types, based on observations of different food preferences.
• New Zealand is home to an estimated 150–200 orca which travel long distances throughout the country’s coastal waters.