The Mystery of the Minkes

A mysterious whale species becomes the centre of attention as experts strive to solve puzzles intriguing whale-watchers, whale-hunters and even the US Navy.

Produced by NHNZ

A dwarf species of whale, entangled in a web of mystery and secrecy, is the centre of attention as The Mystery of the Minkes takes viewers on an engrossing journey through science, nature and history to understand more about the puzzling lives of these enchanting animals

Dwarf minkes captured the attention of whale experts with their inexplicable oceanic sounds, curious nature and some surprise visits to an unexpected location.

For years there have been reports of minkes travelling to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for a few months each winter and extraordinarily circling dive boats for hours on end while interacting with divers in the water.

With this in mind, the Minke Whale Project was set up to try to understand why these inquisitive animals actively seek out boats, and whether swimming with minkes could be a sustainable tourism industry, providing the whales are not stressed or harassed by human interaction.

On board the project’s boat, Undersea Explorer, there is a crew of researchers, scientists and some very willing tourists, forming a vibrant partnership with the same aim: to unearth the mystery of the minke. One of the crew is acoustic researcher Jason Gedamke.

Having been sent by the US Navy to investigate whether an unidentified oceanic sound, known as the A-train, could have been produced by dwarf minkes, Jason unexpectedly solves a different mystery, using his underwater hydrophones.

Although he discovers the A-Train isn’t associated with minkes, he confirms that an unknown sound recorded off the coast of Australia for many years is, in fact, the unique sound of the dwarf whales, which he calls “Star Wars”.

Why and how they make this sound remains unanswered but Jason believes it may be a reproductive call or song, used to attract mates or fend off competitors. Another theory suggests the sounds are for navigation, bouncing off rocks and islands to help them avoid underwater obstacles.

Also on board are scientists Peter Arnold and Alastair Birtles, who study the bizarre behavioural characteristics of the whales and observe how they react to human contact.

Hanging on to a rope attached to the bow of the boat, the tourists are able to interact with these intriguing creatures and watch them bubble blast, belly roll and even gape at them.

While the whales put on this elaborate display, Alastair and Peter collect data on what they see to enable them to build a picture of the individual whales, how often they visit the area and how they interact with each other. In no time at all, the pair has nicknames for many of the minkes and can keep track of which whales are approaching swimmers on each occasion.

Although the Minke Whale Project has broadened our knowledge of this puzzling creature, there are still many unanswered mysteries.

Researchers are still puzzled about where minkes migrate to for the rest of the year. One theory suggests they might migrate to Antarctic waters where, if this is true, their fascination with boats could make them easy targets for whaling vessels.

What attracts the whales to boats each year also remains unsolved, along with how many exist and what their distinctive sounds mean.

One thing does seem clear though. Over six seasons, the Minke Whale Project researchers have never observed signs of the whales being agitated or stressed.

Perhaps this means whale watching is a sustainable enterprise which could eventually replace the controversial whaling industry which has left the world’s whale population in decline after a century of hunting for meat, baleen and oil.

The programme not only gets up close and personal with individual minke whales, it also looks at their role in the ongoing debate about the future of the whaling industry.

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