SOUTHERN
RIGHT WHALE

A SENTINEL SPECIES FOR CLIMATE CHANGE. DECIMATED BY WHALING, THE NOW RECOVERING SPECIES FACES A NEW THREAT, THE CHANGING OCEAN.

Photo credit: Richard Robinson © 2021

Tracking the Tohorā

The return of the tohorā/southern right whale is one of Aotearoa’s best conservation success stories. They were decimated by whalers in the 19th century, from estimates of 30,000 of these great whales to around only 40 left by 1920. They were called the ‘right’ whale to hunt because of their slow moving, curious and docile natures. An international hunting ban and a marine reserve located in the Maungahuka/Auckland Islands allowed the whales to recover and by 2009 there were approximately 2,000. The reserve provides a refuge and safe breeding/nursery ground for the whales during winter, vital to the success of their recovery. Scientists have counted between 150-200 of these gentle giants in a single day in the Auckland Islands.

The IMF estimates that each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2, on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. They also help produce phytoplankton. Even a 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity thanks to whale activity would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees.

Very little is known about where these whales go once they leave the safety of their winter grounds and where they spend the other nine months of the year before returning home to the Maungahuka/Auckland Islands. Scientists need to find out where they’re going ahead of a major new challenge to their recovery, climate change. International trends are showing these whales are breeding less often and it’s thought they’re either getting less food or food is shifting from regions where they’ve traditionally visited. Without enough food, whales cannot breed or nurse their calf.

During the winter of 2020 and 2021, Dr. Emma Carroll from the University of Auckland and her research team put satellite trackers on 20 tohorā/southern right whales. Follow this year’s tracks as these playful giants 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. Through our donors, Live Ocean provided pivotal funding for the voyage over both these years.

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.

Photo credit: Richard Robinson © 2021

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