A SENTINEL SPECIES FOR CLIMATE CHANGE. DECIMATED BY WHALING IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THE NOW RECOVERING SPECIES FACES A NEW THREAT, THE CHANGING OCEAN.
Tracking the Tohorā
In August 2020, researchers from the University of Auckland and Cawthron Institute put satellite trackers on six tohorā/southern right whales. Follow each of these playful giants as they migrate from Maungahuka/Auckland Islands to their chosen feeding grounds. Migration routes have changed a lot since the days of whaling, with major implications for how we should protect the tohorā.
Live Ocean provided pivotal funding for the initial 2020 season and is now seeking support for the final research voyage in 2021. If you would like more information about the tracking programme, visit www.tohoravoyages.ac.nz.
The images on this page were taken on assignment by New Zealand Geographic photographer Richard Robinson at Port Ross in the subantarctic Auckland Islands. Coverage taken under New Zealand Department of Conservation permit.
MAPPING THE FUTURE
Our ocean is changing, and quickly. The ocean is showing the impacts of climate change, pollution and over-fishing in even the most remote parts. How is life in the ocean adapting? In New Zealand where our waters contain major highways for whales, sharks, turtles, tuna and seabirds, we have a special and significant role in advancing global understanding.
Live Ocean is helping fund important research by the University of Auckland into New Zealand’s tohorā/southern right whale. It’s considered a sentinel species for climate change. They used to be a significant part of our eco-system until the population was decimated by whaling in the 19th century. The now recovering species faces a new threat, the changing ocean.
Global trends are showing the tohorā are breeding less than the usual every three years. In some recent years, virtually no tohorā have returned to breed in key regions such as South Africa. How the changes in the ocean are impacting the tohorā is currently unknown.
Scientists think there’s a link between the tohorās’ changing feeding patterns and the changing ocean. Either less food is available or their food is moving away from traditional feeding grounds. Without enough food, tohorā cannot breed or nurse their calf while they fast during winter.
Southern right whales were hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s. Whalers considered them the ‘right’ whale to hunt because they are slow moving and docile. By 1920 there were only thought to be 40 whales from the original estimated population of 30,000.
An international hunting ban and a marine reserve in the Auckland Islands allowed the whales to recover to approximately 2,000 whales by 2009. The reserve provides a safe space for breeding and raising calves during winter, which has been vital to their recovery. Sightings from the mainland have become more common, such as Matariki, who captivated Wellington locals in 2018 with his acrobatics in the harbour.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
- Find out where the whales go after they leave the safety of their Auckland Islands breeding grounds, scientists simply don’t know where they go nine months a year.
- Identify how much the population has grown over the last 10 years.
- Recovery will be estimated using DNA analysis of kin relationships.
- Find out where they go and where they feed in a changing ocean using innovative scientific methods.
100% of your donation will go to our projects.
“This research will provide information on how the whales use coastal areas around the Auckland Islands and mainland New Zealand for breeding, and offshore areas for feeding, and how the whales have recovered over the last decade where climate change has been most apparent. This research provides the context to have a broader discussion about how to plan for nature in our waters.”
DR EMMA CARROLL
THE UNIVERSITY OF AUCKLAND