Double Bill

A journalist’s cetacean counterpart.

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Richard Robinson

University of Auckland researchers satellite-tagged six southern right whales during their August expedition to the subantarctic: Tahi, Rua, Toru, Wha, Rima and Wiremu. Translated from te reo, those tohorā are named One, Two, Three, Four, Five… and Bill.

Bill Morris and Richard Robinson joined the expedition on assignment for New Zealand Geographic (see their story here).

Attaching satellite tags to tohorā requires good aim. Whales are fast, and the tags cost $6000 each. “You don’t want to miss when you use them,” says Bill, “and unfortunately they did miss on this one occasion.”

The tag sploshed into the water and dropped out of sight. While the researchers continued their work, Richie and Bill were deputised to search for it. “None of us thought there was much of a chance of getting it back,” says Bill.

Richie arranged a search pattern underwater, and the pair combed the sea floor. Nothing. They gave up. They were heading back to their starting point when Bill swam directly over the tag. When he broke the surface, holding the tag aloft triumphantly, it began to transmit once again, pinging whale researcher Emma Carroll halfway across Port Ross.

Next time, they didn’t miss, and the whale was named in Bill’s honour. “I got a lot more credit than I deserve,” he says.

Now back home in Dunedin, Bill is following the whales’ journeys online—their routes are updated in real time at Their tracks bend from the Auckland Islands down towards Antarctica, then curve up towards the eastern coast of Australia, as though they’re heading for Perth. (All except Rua, who is still swimming around the subantarctic.) The whales are travelling in the same direction, and Bill appears to be in the lead. “Bill is the fastest whale,” says Bill.

Bill-the-whale will disappear from the online map at the end of the summer—its satellite tag will only transmit for about 200 days—but before then, Carroll and other researchers hope Bill and the others will arrive at their summer feeding grounds, which remain a mystery.

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