Humpback whales used to regularly pass through the Hauraki Gulf during their migrations from Antarctica to the tropics and back. Whalers named them ‘humpback’ because of the way the animals arch their back before diving, which profiles the hump around their dorsal fin.
The relative abundance of whales in the Gulf led to the establishment of a shore whaling station in Whangaparapara Harbour, Great Barrier Island, in 1956. Two specially-built petrol-engined chasers, fitted out with harpoons, were used to catch the whales. The whales were then towed back to the factory and cut up into hunks to be boiled down. The oil was skimmed off the top of the liquid for sale and the solids were processed into blood and bone fertiliser. The baleen was dumped at sea. Some of the higher quality whalemeat was sold to restaurants in Auckland.
The 1960 season proved the most profitable with 135 whales caught. But then the population crashed and the whaling station was closed 2 years later. As well as being hunted in the Gulf and elsewhere around New Zealand the whales had been targeted in Antarctica by Japanese, Russian and Norwegian factory whaling ships. The remains of the old whaling station can still be seen in Whangaparapara harbour.
It was many years before humpback whales were seen around New Zealand’s coasts in any numbers. But now that the hunting of the whales has stopped, we are likely to see many more of these magnificent animals frequenting the Gulf again.
A group of Bryde’s whales have chosen the Hauraki Gulf as a place to live all year round and as somewhere to bring up their calves. This is unusual for a whale species, as most migrate from the tropics to the polar regions each year. We are very lucky to have a population of whales right on Auckland’s doorstep and we need to look after them.
View this fantastic drone video of the Bryde’s whales in the Gulf taken by AUT scientists.
Bryde’s whales are small baleen whales that can often be seen feeding amongst seabirds and dolphins in large ‘boil ups’ of fish in the Hauraki Gulf. The population is considered to be threatened, being listed by the Department of Conservation as “nationally critical”.
The whales used to be hunted, with 19 animals being taken at the whaling station at Whangaparapara, Great Barrier Island during the 1960s. However, Bryde’s whales do not produce much oil so they were not targeted in the same way that humpback whales were.
The biggest risk the whales now face is being hit by the large ships that transit the Gulf to enter the Port of Auckland. The shipping lanes cut right across the areas where the whales spend much of their time, and if they are hit by the large hulls travelling at high speed, the whales have little chance of surviving. A total of 18 whales are known to have died from ship strike in the Hauraki Gulf since 1996.
Responding to this issue, in 2013, Ports of Auckland issued a voluntary protocol that advised ships to reduce speed, where possible, when transiting through the Gulf. At speeds of 10 knots or less there is a much higher chance that the whales will survive a collision. Since the release of the protocol, speeds have been reducing and are now on average less than 11 knots. There has only been one recorded whale death from ship strike, on 12 September 2014, since the protocol was put in place.
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