The whales are back
Last century, southern right whales were hunted until there were none left—none that we could find. A small group of these whales, also called tohorā, hid from the harpoon. Deep in the subantarctic, the survivors birthed and nursed their young. Now, tohorā are returning to the coasts of New Zealand. Are we ready for them?
Our ship lies at anchor, leaning hard before the 50-knot westerly battering the Auckland Islands. The wind howls in the rigging. We’ve travelled 450 kilometres south of New Zealand to one of the greatest animal gatherings on the planet—and, since the weather turned for the worse four days ago, we haven’t been able to leave the ship. Our work is made impossible by the storm that whips Port Ross into a heavy chop.
But the whales are out there, in their hundreds. We watch from the deck as they move around us, waves sploshing off their broad backs. Every year, between June and September, tohorā congregate to mate and give birth here in the shelter of Port Ross, at the northern end of this subantarctic archipelago.
Our expedition, led by a team from the University of Auckland, is here to study the whales, using cutting-edge genetic techniques that will allow us to understand the complexities of these animals’ lives.
Then, on the fifth morning, we wake to the gentle lapping of water against the hull and the snorting of whales in the cove. The storm has passed.
As we launch one of our inflatable dinghies, remnant snow showers sweep the crags above us, clouds parting to reveal volcanic cliffs bathed in soft, golden light. In the distance, seven or eight whales are engaged in what’s called a social aggregation. Their giant black fins and tails rise in slow motion from the surface of the water. Beneath, great black bodies are twisting, turning, caressing.
Outfitted in scuba gear, photographer Richard Robinson and I slip quietly into the water, dropping 10 metres to a sea floor that’s bare except for scuttling spider crabs. Yellow-eyed penguins shoot like sleek bullets out of the edges of our vision as we scan the hazy distance. Then I grab Richie’s arm and point. A monster is lurking in the gloom.
You see its callosities first, white clusters on its snout as unique as a fingerprint, standing out against the blackness of its skin. Then, the bulk of it materialises—a 35-tonne animal, almost the length of a semi-trailer, hanging directly above us. It arches its back and sinks down through the water, until its head is resting against the sand at our knees.
As it drifts towards me across the sea floor, I shuffle backwards so we don’t collide. It lifts its snout and turns to regard us with an eye buried in the side of its head. Its skin is peeled and scarred in places. I watch its pectoral fin lightly brush the sand, kicking up a minor storm, and notice the heart-shaped white patch on its side.
It slips over our heads and disappears, only to return a few minutes later for another look. Our bubbles trickle up and across its belly as it swoops past. While I can’t suppress a touch of apprehension at being this close to such a big animal, I also feel at peace in its gigantic, gentle presence.
Tens of thousands of these whales were hunted in the 19th century, and by the 20th, they had all but vanished from mainland New Zealand. For almost four decades, between 1928 and 1963, not a single tohorā was recorded in New Zealand waters.
Then, in the winter of 1980, a yacht visiting the Auckland Islands made an astonishing discovery: Port Ross was full of whales. This, and other sightings at the Auckland Islands and at Moutere Ihupuku/Campbell Island, 300 kilometres to the south-east, prompted a Royal New Zealand Air Force survey flight for whales in 1992. That flight confirmed tohorā were indeed making a comeback, with Port Ross the key breeding area.
Between 1995 and 2009, scientists observed the number of whales in the Auckland Islands steadily increasing, at an estimated rate of seven per cent each year.
For more than a decade, I dreamed of witnessing this gathering of whales, but my persistent efforts to join an expedition to the subantarctic came to nothing. My luck finally turned in 2017, when I was invited on a University of Otago research expedition as a videographer.
I’ll never forget arriving in Port Ross after a three-day voyage, standing on the bow in the wind-driven rain. In the drizzle off the vessel’s starboard side, a whale rose to the surface and blew as we came abreast of it. The spray drifted on the wind, hitting me square in the face. Spat on by my first southern right whale.
For the next three weeks, I was plunged into a different world. I saw mother-and-calf pairs resting in still coves fringed by ancient rātā forest, the calves playfully climbing on their mums’ tails and heads. Further out, groups of young animals, up to ten at a time, socialised and mated, the females lying on their backs while amorous males caressed them with their huge pectoral fins. Whales breached, slapping their fins against the water, or spy-hopped to observe us as we passed. Sometimes, whales came right up to our dinghies, often following us around like curious dogs. I’d been lucky enough to encounter several species of whale before then, but I’d never met any with such a playful nature.
There was something else, too. Although some whales played with us when we dived, the mothers and calves would often move away to avoid us. Our presence in Port Ross, I realised, subtly changed the whales’ behaviour. I became painfully aware of how much noise our outboard engines made in the water. So long as we were here, we couldn’t avoid affecting them.
It’s a dilemma I wrestled with again when I returned to Port Ross the following year to film for a BBC series. Then, in 2020, I was invited to join University of Auckland molecular ecologist Emma Carroll and her team on assignment for New Zealand Geographic. As we sailed into Port Ross, once again surrounded by these magnificent beasts, however, it felt a bit like coming home.
In the Tainui waka tradition, a taniwha called Pane-iraira accompanied the voyage from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. Some believe this taniwha was a whale shark, but Ramari Oliphant Stewart believes the story relates to migrating whales.
“My father said Pane-iraira was the one with the white patches on its head,” she tells me. “So that describes the callosities on the southern right whale’s head. I understood from talking with my father that they met Pane-iraira at Rangitāhua, the Kermadecs.”
Ramari, who is Ngāti Awa but also has strong links to Tainui, is a tohunga tohorā—a whale rider, a person with a special affinity to the natural world. In the early 1980s, reports of right whales wintering at Campbell Island fired her obsession to get there. She fought for a job on the all-male Meteorological Service team. Once on Campbell Island, she used her days off to observe the complex social lives of tohorā in North West Bay. In the mid-1990s, Ramari would go on to lead three research expeditions to the island, getting to know the whales’ behaviour intimately.
One of her favourite animals was a young whale she named Seaweed, who developed a habit of towing bull kelp around the bay. The whale allowed young sea lions to climb on its tail before tipping them off.
In 2001, Ramari’s research trust, Project Tohorā, produced the first published paper on the Campbell Island whales. Alongside research in the Auckland Islands by Nathalie Patenaude and Scott Baker, the paper helped kickstart scientific interest in New Zealand’s tohorā. Before that, says Ramari, tohorā were in the “too-hard pile”.
For Ramari, spending time on Campbell Island was a way of reconnecting with the vanished Aotearoa of her ancestors. “This was the only place I could see a whale out my window,” she says. “It’s what our tīpuna used to see or hear. You’re seeing a small window to what used to happen all around the New Zealand mainland.”
Early Māori would have been accustomed to seeing hundreds of whales breeding all along the mainland’s east coast during winter. While tangata whenua made use of stranded whales for their bone, blubber and meat, Māori are not known to have hunted tohorā or other large whales before the arrival of Europeans.
“[The whales] were our elders, our relations,” Ramari tells me. “Because we all came from the same parents. They were respected, because they had been around much longer than we had. So they were just allowed to get on with their lives undisturbed.”
That all changed with the arrival of European whalers in the early 1800s. Southern rights were hunted without pause or mercy from shore-based whaling stations and ships. Just a couple of decades after whaling began, their populations had collapsed around New Zealand.
In 1840, British explorer James Clark Ross sought sanctuary in the Auckland Islands, in the port that would one day bear his name. Then his ships Erebus and Terror headed south, to a region that would also be named for him—the Ross Sea—where he recorded large numbers of “black whales” feeding among the ice floes. These were almost certainly southern rights. Decades later, Ross’s reports piqued the interest of Norwegian whalers, and in 1895, an expedition was sent to the Ross Sea in search of this untapped wealth.
That expedition saw not a single southern right whale. It’s likely that whaling had reduced the numbers of tohorā to such an extent that the animals were no longer a major part of the Antarctic food web. Expedition leader Henrik Bull concluded: “A very little reflection will make it clear how the decimation of Right whales in a certain latitude must result in a corresponding reduction in other regions. Extermination at the winter haunts leads to extermination at all other haunts.”
A global moratorium on hunting right whales came into effect in 1935, and 11 years later, the whaling nations of the world signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in an attempt to protect the world’s remaining whales.
Despite being a signatory to the agreement, the Soviet Union continued to hunt. Between 1948 and 1973, Soviet whalers illegally killed around 180,000 whales. Striving to meet annual production targets set by the Soviet government, their factory ships swept through New Zealand waters, massacring any whales they found. In New Zealand’s subantarctic territory, the Soviets killed 294 tohorā, a significant portion of the remaining population. (It is estimated that, worldwide, illegal post-war Soviet whaling claimed the lives of half the southern right whales left on the planet.)
These events came to light only in the 1990s, when a number of scientists who had been aboard the Soviet whaling ships risked their lives by describing what had happened. One of them, Alfred Antonovich Berzin, detailed the slaughter in his memoirs.
“Those memoirs are a tear-jerker to read,” says Ramari. “It’s gut-wrenching. They were taking every whale they encountered. Lactating females and protected whales. There were stories of calves trying to rush up the slip after their mothers. The more I found out about it, the more I couldn’t understand how they survived.”
Ramari believes Campbell Island is a special refuge for young tohorā, and the Soviets somehow missed the animals wintering there—an oversight that saved the species.
The Soviets also targeted humpback whales, which pass through our waters on their annual migration between Antarctica and the tropics. Between 1959 and 1961, they killed 25,000 in Antarctic waters. At the time, New Zealand maintained shore-based whaling stations on Aotea/Great Barrier Island and in the Marlborough Sounds, where families such as the Guards and Peranos had hunted whales for generations. By 1964, humpback numbers had fallen so low that whaling was no longer economically viable in New Zealand. The industry came to an end—150 years after it began—and the old stations fell into disrepair. The bones of butchered whales lay forgotten, disturbed only by the restless movement of the tides.
“When I started talking to the Perano family,” says Carroll, “I learned that whale bones actually wash up on the beaches. Some of these families have been collecting them over the generations, so there’s literally piles of them in their backyard.”
These piles include tohorā bones from the early days—and locked inside those bones is a chemical record of where those whales travelled.
Seawater chemistry varies from one place to another, and when whales feed, this chemical information is preserved in their body tissues as stable isotopes of elements such as carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. By analysing stable isotopes in the bones, Carroll can figure out which ocean areas were once important to the tohorā—the favoured places that have apparently been lost from whale memory.
Based on 19th-century logbooks and catch records, Carroll and her colleagues believe there used to be about 30,000 southern right whales around New Zealand. Whales were once killed in large numbers on the Chatham Rise and along the Louisville Ridge, north of New Zealand—both areas that southern right whales are not known to frequent today.
As Carroll explains, young tohorā learn where to travel from their mothers. “So they’ll be born in their mum’s favourite wintering ground and travel with her to her preferred feeding grounds,” she says. “And in that way they’ll learn their mum’s migratory traditions. It’s a form of migratory culture.
“That’s why we think New Zealand’s subantarctic is doing well, but the mainland isn’t. We wiped out those whales that had that knowledge of the mainland as a good place to breed. And that’s why the recovery is so slow, because we have to wait for new mums to start breeding around the mainland, and to teach their calves it’s a good place to go.”
Using a combination of genetic data and satellite tracking, Carroll hopes to find out whether these old feeding grounds are still important, and if not, where the whales are now migrating to.
There are three species of right whale in the world—the North Pacific right whale, the North Atlantic right whale and the southern right whale. The two northern hemisphere species have never recovered from commercial whaling, and are among the most endangered marine mammals on the planet. Only a few hundred of each remain. The North Pacific species, which was decimated by Soviet whalers, is extremely elusive, making them difficult to study, while North Atlantic right whales are often found to be unhealthy and thin, and are at high risk of being struck by ships in busy waterways.
Southern rights, however, are slowly recovering. Each year, genetically distinct groups of whales gather to breed around South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, with most of these populations steadily growing.
Right whales mostly live on copepods—small krill-like crustaceans that they filter out of seawater with their baleen. If there’s plenty of food in the sea, mother whales will be plump and healthy and produce strong calves. A long-running University of Otago study used drones to measure the width of the Auckland Islands tohorā, and found they were among the healthiest, fattest right whales on the planet.
And yet these are very uncertain times for our oceans. The recovery of right whales in other parts of the southern hemisphere has recently shown signs of faltering, with researchers suggesting climate change could be affecting the whales’ ability to fatten up and breed successfully. Could we soon see a similar pattern here?
Our dinghy homes in on the mother whale, and she picks up her pace to evade us. At the tiller is Rochelle Constantine, a whale researcher and associate professor at the University of Auckland. Carroll is poised at the bow, biopsy rifle in hand.
The whale disappears from sight, and we follow for several minutes, trying to predict where she will re-emerge, looking for the oily patches of water that appear on the surface as she passes below—her “footprint”.
Her calf breaks the surface and exhales noisily—it can’t stay down as long as its mum, who is still lost from sight in the cold, dark water of Port Ross.
Minutes go by.
Suddenly, there’s a great snort, and the mother’s smooth, vast back appears ahead of us. Constantine guns the outboard and the dinghy gains on the whale, riding close in the slop of her wake. We have just seconds before she submerges again. Carroll braces herself against the uncertain pitch of the boat and fires.
The dart bounces off the whale’s back, and the mother and her calf are once again swallowed by the sea. Constantine dials back the engine. Carroll reels in the dart and, to her relief, discovers a plug of jet-black whale skin embedded in its hollow point.
“We don’t like to chase them,” says Carroll. “So it’s always a relief to get something back.”
Shortly after being darted, the whales calm down and move into a nearby bay, which allows the team to fly a drone over them and take aerial photographs that they later match up with the biopsy sample.
“With a really small tissue sample,” explains Constantine, “we can determine the sex of the animal. We also know its genetic fingerprint, so we know exactly who it is.”
Carroll is studying how the whales are related in order to figure out how much the population has grown. By analysing mitochondrial DNA in the samples, she is also able to see how many lines of maternal descent, or haplotypes, are present in the population. From her previous work, she believes all of the tohorā in New Zealand waters are descended from as few as 13 females that survived the carnage of whaling.
Back in her Auckland laboratory, Carroll will use a technique called close-kin mark-recapture, which looks at how often the DNA of particular whale mums and dads shows up in the biopsies in order to estimate the size of a population. It’s a bit like figuring out how many people at a wedding share the same grandparents—but using only DNA. The more people in attendance at the wedding, the less likely you are to chat to two guests who happen to be cousins, for instance. “If you go to a wedding of 20 people, you’re more likely to see two people who are related,” says Carroll. “If you go to a wedding of 200 people, then you’re less likely to see two people there who are related. Whale populations are like that, too.”
From the biopsies Carroll has collected, she can estimate how big the “wedding” is—in this case, the whale population. In 2009, it was estimated there were 2000 right whales living in New Zealand waters. Carroll’s data will allow her to make a more accurate guess—it’s possible there are twice as many now.
As soon as tohorā calves are big enough to handle the rigours of the open sea, their mothers will lead them on their first migration. “The calves grow about a metre a month,” says Constantine. “The mum has very fat-rich milk, so that means that the calf is able to cope with the migration, but also cold temperatures.”
For female tohorā, having a baby is a significant undertaking. “They’ll have one calf every three years, and [the mother] will lose up to 25 per cent of her size investing in that calf,” says Carroll. “So if they don’t get enough kai, they can’t actually gestate or look after that calf.
“That’s why it’s important to understand where our whales are feeding, so that we can understand how climate change will impact their recovery.”
To this end, we’ve attached satellite tags to six non-breeding whales in Port Ross. At $6000 apiece, the tags don’t come cheap. But what they reveal is astonishing. Within days, the tags are already feeding information back to us—one of the whales has headed off in the direction of Campbell Island, while others turn south-west, towards Antarctica.
Back home, Carroll will be able to follow their journeys for the next six months. She’ll also age the whales from her biopsy samples. It’s a newly developed technique, so for the first time we may get an accurate fix on their lifespan.
In general, whales are long-lived, and it’s quite likely tohorā could live for more than 100 years. (The closely related bowhead whale, which lives in the Arctic, is thought to live for up to 250 years.)
That means some of the older right whales in our population may have been alive during the whaling era. Could it be that one or two of those 13 females who somehow evaded the harpoon are still part of our population—grand old matriarchs with hundreds of descendants? Have they lived to witness the return of tohorā to the New Zealand mainland after a century of absence?
In 2012, a mother and calf southern right whale were spotted at Ōraka/Colac Bay in Southland. The calf was so small that there was no way it could have swum from the Auckland Islands, so it must have been born on the Southland coast—perhaps the first tohorā born near the mainland since the cessation of whaling. The pair drew dozens of curious locals to the coast for a look.
Since then, right whales have been popping up frequently in the Southland region, and a number of calves are thought to have been born in Fiordland and Te Waewae Bay.
“It’s pretty cool,” says Ros Cole, senior biodiversity ranger for Southland at the Department of Conservation. “People get pretty excited when they get the opportunity to see them. We had one in Bluff Harbour. There’s an old derelict wharf that people fish off and we got a few people ringing up because the whale was alongside.”
While the return of tohorā to our coasts is cause for celebration, it also raises some big questions. “That coastal space all around New Zealand can be cluttered with all sorts of things,” says Cole, “be it moorings, wharves, aquaculture structures or tidal power generation.
“[Whales] are playful, they’re curious and they come in really close. We’ve got so many risks. We need to be thinking, ‘What can we do to make sure that space is safe, but also that we can share it?’”
The peak of whale movement around our coasts is between July and October, which coincides with the busiest time of the year for cray fishers, who race to take advantage of high demand driven by Chinese holidays in September. Malcolm Lawson, chief executive of CRA8, the management group that oversees cray fishing in the southern region, tells me fishers are seeing whales more often.
“The last thing we want to do is put them at any risk,” he says. “Because September is so important to us financially, it’s a matter of whales and fishing getting on side
Inquisitive young tohorā are particularly vulnerable to entanglement. To them, the rope dangling between a cray pot on the seabed and a buoy on the surface might seem like an irresistible toy. Lawson is working with Rochelle Constantine to figure out how to avoid entanglements. “The way it normally happens is whales get tangled with loose rope floating on the surface,” he says. “So one of the obvious things to do is to operate with short rope.”
Ropeless pots, now used in some overseas fisheries, are not currently feasible here, due to the cost and limitations of using the gear in our waters, but Lawson says this technology may be an option in future.
“The other thing is to get a handle on their migrating patterns and timings,” he tells me, “and, if possible, to establish migrating routes. Do the whales travel through in a certain depth band, for example?”
With valuable fishing gear at stake, commercial fishers may tend to avoid whales, but for some recreational boaties the allure of getting a closer look can be irresistible. The Marine Mammals Protection Act prohibits approaching within 50 metres of a whale—or 200 metres of a mother and calf—but breaches, both deliberate and accidental, are commonplace. Trouble is, the areas tohorā favour for breeding are the same sheltered places we use most heavily when we go out on the water.
In 2019, a mother and calf appeared off Hawke’s Bay and made their way to the Hauraki Gulf. It was perhaps the first time such a pair had been seen in those waters for generations. “By the time she left Auckland,” says Constantine, “she had a propellor cut on her back.”
Then, in 2020, video footage emerged of a mother and calf being rammed by a boat near Raglan.
“It worries me,” says Ramari Oliphant Stewart. “Those calves grow quick, and the bigger they get in those early stages of life, the more the mother has to produce. So her undisturbed rest state in those nursery areas is so important.
“I just don’t know how fizz boats are going to fit into that.”
At the moment, a whale sighting around the mainland is a rare thrill for boaties. But what happens when the novelty wears off?
“People are excited to see a right whale,” says Constantine. “But when they become more common, then they start to become a problem. Australia’s seeing that with the humpback whales. They’re slowing ferries down and people can’t do what they want to do.”
In 2018, a young southern right whale made himself at home in Wellington Harbour for several weeks. Matariki was often seen breaching, or resting beside the ferry wharf. While he delighted Wellingtonians, he also upset ferry schedules and caused the postponement of the city’s annual fireworks display.
For Ramari, it’s time to square up to a future that is certain to involve whales.
“We’ve been saying over and over again that this animal came to near-extinction because of whaling,” she tells me. “We’ve been focused on that. What we’re not focused on is what’s going to happen over the next few decades. What have we learned?”
The key, she says, lies in a whakataukī, or proverb: Ka titiro ki muri, ka haere ki mua. Look behind to walk forward into the future.
“Look at what we’ve learned from the Campbell Island experience and the Auckland Island experience,” she says, referring to the 25 years’ worth of research conducted on the whales in these places. “Look at what we’ve learned, and take that into the future.”
It’s been more than two decades since Ramari last spent time with her beloved tohorā. Their absence from her life, she tells me, is a deep hurt that doesn’t leave her. “Every time winter starts to arrive,” she says, “I start to feel quite pōuri—quite sad. Because I haven’t found a way to get back there.
“I wanted to spend the rest of my life on that island.”
On a still night, the rātā-clad hills around Port Ross echo with the snorts, grumbles, slaps and groans of dozens of southern right whales. Sitting out on the deck, with the boat’s generators silenced and everyone else in their bunks, I record these astonishing, and often quite amusing, sounds. It’s the noise of giants gathering—an ancient ritual—but it’s also something of a party. They sound like they’re having a good time.
Once, harbours and bays around New Zealand’s mainland coast would have reverberated with this cacophony. It would have been, as Ramari puts it, “the sound of winter”. All we know now is the silence of the whales’ absence.
Our three weeks in the Auckland Islands are coming to a close. Carroll and her team plan to return next year to complete their research, then after that, she hopes, there will be no need to study these whales for another decade.
We haul up the anchor and creep out of Port Ross, two crew members on the bow to guide the skipper around the resting whales, all the way out to Enderby Island at the harbour mouth. On Sandy Bay, a few young sea lions are already jostling for space, in anticipation of the breeding season still a few months off. Penguins, too, scurry up the beach, while giant petrels slice the wind high above.
People have tried several times to make a home in Port Ross. They all failed—driven out by the weather, the isolation and the underlying harshness of the environment. It belongs, as it always has, to the animals.
We strike the first of the northerly swells we’ll battle on the passage home, and the heave of the sea sends us grasping for the rails. As we settle in for the long trip back to the mainland, I feel the same conflicting emotions I have felt every time I have left the Auckland Islands. On the one hand, a fervent hope that I’ll return; on the other, a sense of relief. Not because I want to leave, but because we have left, and once again the whales are free of our intrusion. As much as I may love this place, I’ve come to realise that I don’t, and never will, truly belong here.