Archived Blogs: Southern Right Whales in the Auckland Islands
Moby P chases Brian
Roz and her pet
Daylight broke over the calmest seas we've seen to date. In order to take advantage of the break in the weather, the darting team left early. A wind shift and clear skies motivated the underwater team to move the Evohe back to Enderby Island, where oceanic water is less influenced by freshwater runoff and consequently has much better visibility. Brian and Mauricio were on the water just after 10 a.m., and conditions were excellent. Brian slipped in near whales.
Then, out of the dark murky water (cue the Jaws soundtrack)... a young right whale started circling Brian and the boat (he claims it was the one who gunshotted him earlier in the week, who he had named Moby P). It became more and more aggressive, swiping his tail back and forth. Brian was about 10 feet below the whale, and as the whale swept over the top of him, it released a cloud of reddish brown, well, uh,... digested food, fully processed. An audience of yellow eyed penguins watching from shore feigned indifference at the entire drama. A giant petrel circled overhead, wondering whether Brian was something good to eat. Wisely, Brian retreated from the field of battle and climbed into the zodiac with Mauricio, then motored off to find some other whales.
Many whales were nearby, and one was strikingly colored - like Belted Galloway cattle - with a wide white band of color around its middle, and a broad swatch of white across its tail. Another whale had half-moon white crescents on its back, and yet another had a bright white flag near its tail. We have been struck by the high percentage of whales in this population with bright white or gray pigment markings on the body. In the North Atlantic, right whales appear to have been produced by the early Model T factory (you can have any color you want, as long as it's black!). We can count on one hand the number of North Atlantic right whales with natural white blazes or spots on their backs (Starry Night, Picasso, Dropcloth, Crescent), but in this South Pacific population at least ten percent of the animals have unique and unusual blazes and/or coloration dorsally.
While Brian was engaged in the life or death struggle with Moby P, right whales started approaching the Evohe, and Roz and I managed to get health assessment photographs for 23 different animals. We still have yet to see a skinny, scarred, or unhealthy looking whale. And we had a second sighting of a whale we call Stubby, who is missing most of both sides of its tail. Close-up photographs taken by Glen indicate that the whale did not lose its tail to killer whales or a ship, but rather it appears to be either a circulatory problem or perhaps a developmental one. Other whales have lost tails and managed to survive, and Stubby was very active yesterday, lobtailing and posturing nearby for over an hour.
The darting team made contact with a shrimp boat that just arrived from Timaru, New Zealand, after a three day crossing in which they "got the daylights kicked out of them". It's odd to have neighbors after 9 days of isolation, but they were happy to see us, as they set about organizing their nets and gear for a three week trip to the winter shrimping grounds south of us. Best of all, our cook Allison (who is from a fishing family) managed to score 5kg of shrimp.
In the afternoon, the weather deteriorated, and we moved the Evohe into Laurie Harbor for the night. While sailing in, snow and hail squalls alternated with brilliant sun. (Question: What's the difference between sandblasting your face and working in the Auckland Islands? Answer: Not much.) However, there are rewards here - many mothers and calves, white fronted terns, spectacular scenery, and several courtship groups. Its a record day for the biopsy team with 27 whales. Brian's underwater images from today look promising, and the health assessment team scores 23. Toasts to a good day all around, even as the wind blows harder and we huddle around the fire. Dark falls with whales blowing around us.