With a coastline of approximately 15,000 kilometres New Zealanders have always had and continue to have a close affinity with the ocean. Working within a company whose occupation it is to take passengers out on harbour cruises and swimming with the dolphins we the staff at Black Cat Cruises are at the heart of it all and have been fortunate to have had special encounters with some of the less common, larger marine creatures.
The latest exciting visitors to the peninsula waters have been the migrating Humpback whales. During the summer months the Humpback whales are down in their feeding grounds in Antarctic waters but during the winter months they make their way to their tropical South Pacific breeding grounds. Passing by in New Zealand’s coastal waters provides opportunities for Kiwis and ocean-goers alike to have close encounters with these whales. Humpback whales are easily identified by their distinctive knobbly dorsal fin, large pectoral fins (their scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae means big wings of New England) and heads covered with bumps (tubercles). They can grow to lengths of 15 metres, weigh between 30 – 40 tonnes and are known for their ‘singing’ and playful acrobatics. They are a baleen whale feeding by surging through the water with an open mouth then filtering the krill and fish from the water through their baleen (long keratin plates hanging from the top of the mouth).
Humpbacks are a stocky whale, meaning they are generally slow moving which not only makes them perfect for whale watching but made them a popular target for whalers in New Zealand waters during the 1800 and 1900’s. The Humpbacks were such an easy target that the reduction in their population reached a point that there were no individuals seen passing through the Cook Strait; normally a regular path made annually on their way north. Whaling stopped in New Zealand in 1964 and since then their population has been increasing with as many as 43 individual Humpbacks seen during a four week survey in the Cook Strait in 2010 and a record number of 73 for the 2011 survey.
Before the whalers and settlers came to New Zealand, Maori already had traditional, cultural and spiritual connections to whales of all kinds, including the Humpback. To some iwi or tribes whales were considered kaitiaki, guardians, guiding their ancestor’s canoes safely across the oceans to New Zealand. But they were also a source of food and materials used for creating jewellery or utensils, often making use of the resource when they became stranded on nearby beaches. Because of these connections the whales are often found in their myths, legends, carvings and songs.
These connections with the whales still hold true today and there are very few moments that can compare with being gently approached by a wild, 15 metre long whale and being so close that you feel the droplets of spray move across your skin and your hair being tussled by its breath as the whale exhales. There is nothing more pleasurable than introducing visitors to New Zealand and locals alike to our wildlife, each experience unique and special. So far this winter season we have been fortunate enough to have spent 5 days with different pods of whales varying from solitary individuals up to pods numbering 4. Behaviour differed amongst the pods with some of them steadily travelling north set on the warmer waters, while one curious individual spent it’s time visibly relaxed swimming on it’s back, waving it’s fins and even entering the harbour where it repeatedly approached our harbour cruise boat, Black Cat, in Akaroa, seemingly just as curious about the boat as the harbour cruise passengers were about it.
With the numbers of Humpback whales increasing in our waters we look forward to our future experiences with these seasonal visitors and are elated at the thought that this time next year, along with our passengers, we get to do it all again!