Blues Clues

Although blue whales are big, the South Taranaki Bight is bigger. So finding them is not straight forward. In fact, with little prior research in this area, the main focus of our project is to gain a better understanding of blue whale distribution patterns in the region. So, while bouncing around on the sea, we are collecting habitat data that we relate to whale occurrence data to learn what makes preferred whale habitat.

We conduct CTD casts. CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. This is an instrument we lower down to the bottom of the ocean on a line and along the w ay it records temperature and salinity (conductivity) data at all depths. This data describes the water structure at that location, such as the depth of the thermocline. The ocean is often layered with warm, low-salt water on top, and cooler and salty water at the bottom. This thermocline can act as a boundary above which prey aggregate.

Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere.
Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere. (Photo by Callum Lilley)
CTD cast
Example data retrieved from a CTD cast showing how temperature (green line) decreases and salinity (red line) increases as it descends through the water column (depth on y-axis).

We also have a transducer on board that we use to record the presence of biological material in the ocean, like krill (blue whale prey). This transducer emits pings of sound through the water column and the echoes bounce back, either off the seafloor, krill or fish. This glorified echosounder records where blue whale prey is, and is not.

Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.
Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.

Additionally, the research vessel is always recording surface temperature (SST). I monitor this SST readout somewhat obsessively while at-sea as well as study the latest SST satellite images. Using these two bits of data as my “blues clues”, we search for blue whales.

After a bumpy ride across the Cook Strait we had a good spell of weather last week. We covered a lot of ground, deploying our 5 hydrophones across the Bight and keeping our eyes peeled for blows. Our first day out we found three whales. Fantastic sightings. But, as we continued to survey through warm, low productivity water we found no signs of blue whales. The third day out was a beauty – the type of day I wish for: low swell and low winds – perfect for whale finding. We covered 220 nautical miles this day (deploying 2 hydrophones) and we searched and searched. But no whales. I could see from the SST satellite image that the whole Bight was really warm: about 20 ⁰C. I could also see a strip of cold water down south, toward Farewell Spit. I said “Let’s go there”.

Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.
Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.

After twelve and a half hours of survey effort through clear, blue, warm water, we finally saw the water temperature drop (to about 18 ⁰C) and the water color turn green. We started to see gannets, petrels, shearwaters, and common dolphins feeding. Then I heard the magic words come from Todd’s mouth: “Blow!” So began our sunset sighting. From 7:30 to 10 pm we worked with four blue whales capturing photographs and biopsy samples, and echosounder prey data.

Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)
Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)

This is an example of a species-habitat relationship that marine ecologists like me seek to document. We observe and record patterns like this so that we can better understand and predict the distribution of blue whales. Such information is critical for environmental managers to have in order to effectively regulate where and when human activities that may impact blue whales can occur. Over the next two weeks we will continue to document blue whale habitat in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

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