Three Year study of Kaikōura Canyon Launched
Whale Watch Kaikoura in conjunction with the New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust has launched a three year project to study the submarine canyon of Kaikōura.
Whale Watch Kaikoura (WWK) General Manager Kauahi Ngapora said it was crucially important to better understand the distribution and habitat use of the Sperm Whales at Kaikoura.
“The submarine canyon of Kaikōura, is an enormously productive deep-sea habitat, and serves as an important feeding ground for male sperm whales which are found here year-round.
“A better understanding of the ecology of sperm whales at Kaikōura will help us in the protection of this unique marine ecosystem and the population of sperm whales it supports. Sperm whales have become an iconic symbol of Kaikōura. A healthy future for the sperm whales is an interest shared by Whale Watch and the broader community of Kaikōura.”
Mr Ngapora said while it was likely the high abundance of whales at Kaikōura reflected the exceptional productivity of the Kaikōura canyon, very little was known about what drives its productivity and the factors influencing the distribution of sperm whales.
“Understanding the drivers sustaining the unique ecosystem of the Kaikōura Canyon is particularly important to WWK. Although submarine canyons are known to be hotspots for cetacean diversity, WWK has a limited understanding of what underpins this relationship, and has no direct evidence of what sustains the high energy requirements of sperm whales at Kaikōura. Without this information it is not possible to construct a framework for their protection.
The New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust have supported non-invasive research on sperm whales at Kaikōura since 1990, and have pioneered several new approaches to studying these whales.
The trust was founded by Otago University Professors Steve Dawson and Elisabeth Slooten, well known pioneers of whale and dolphin research in New Zealand. The other trustees are marine biologist Dr William Rayment and accountant and company director Lindsay McLachlan. The project will be led by Dr Rayment and two graduate students, Marta Guerra and Tamlyn Somerford.
Professor Dawson said that nowhere in the Southern Hemisphere are sperm whales found so routinely close to shore as they are at Kaikōura.
“The project aims to assess why the Kaikoura canyon is such a magnet for sperm whales.
“The project focuses on investigating the diet of whales in different seasons, and on understanding what oceanographic processes drive changes in the whales’ distribution.
He said the research will also produce an updated estimate of population size, and assess population trend, and will shed light on why the Kaikoura canyon may be the region’s greatest natural asset.
“The only physical samples taken from the whales are small pieces of sloughed skin which we find at the surface after a whale dives.
“Each whale has a unique combination of nicks and notches on their flukes, so by photographing their flukes we can identify each individual. We’ve known some individual whales for over 20 years.
He said the Kaikōura submarine canyon is an extremely productive habitat, and a feeding hotspot for sperm whales.
“Remarkably for such a unique and accessible ecosystem, we still know very little about why the canyon is so productive or how it supports the diet of these deep-diving predators. This project combines oceanographic measurements of temperature, salinity and phytoplankton productivity – the very base of the food chain –with chemical analyses of tiny pieces of sloughed sperm whale skin, to understand the relationship of sperm whales to their environment and the food web sustaining them.
“The Trust is very keen to support research that will address these questions. The financial support from Whale Watch Kaikōura is crucial for the project to succeed.”