1 Jun 2016

Whale survey canned due to loss of funding

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:12 pm on 1 June 2016

The Department of Conservation's annual whale survey in Cook Strait has had to be canned after it lost private funding for the survey.

For the past 8 years, the oil and gas company OMV has paid for the month long winter survey but it has told DOC it will no longer fund it.

The survey is conducted by marine scientist Nadine Bott, with the vital assistance of a group of former whalers - who perch all day in a special hut atop a hill on Arapawa Island, at the end of the Marlborough sounds - and scan the waters with binoculars. The land is owned by Heather Heberley and her husband Joe. Heather says the team is bitterly disappointed the funding has been lost.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

Why were you survey the whales? What do we get out of recording the whales going past?

Basically I think it was because after the whaling finished - it closed down in New Zealand in 1964 because there were no whales, it just wasn’t economical. It was then realised that they’d been decimated down in the Antarctic waters by the ships down there, so that finished, and then we’ve got two fishing boats and we’d be out fishing, my son and my husband. For years and years they never saw a whale in the Strait. And then, probably over the last 10 years or so they’ve been coming back more. When Nadine Bott approached us about starting a whale survey down here – if it could be feasible, she had all of the scientific stuff – and we just said, ‘Yes, it could work’. So when Joe, my husband, contacted some of the old whalers, because they really needed these people to look through the binoculars. They knew what they were looking for when they were looking for a little black dot that was way out to sea.

Heather, I think some people might be surprised to hear that there are some of the old whalers still alive.

No, well, Joe would be one of the youngest and he’s 73. Over the 12 years that they have done the survey from our place, we’ve had five real hard core of the ones that either were on the boats (gunning, driving), spotting on the hills for the whales and then there were another two who were in the whaling industry and they would come down over that month for one week or a couple of weeks, just what their commitments would let them. But there were five of these old guys, and I’m just saying they’re old in the nicest way! Look, they just couldn’t wait! They’d be ringing each other up through the year, ‘How are your eyes?’. Now, it’s gone. I feel sad for them.

Given your family’s involvement in whaling, it must have been a nice full circle to be involved in the survey.

It was. Even our two sons, when they’d come in from fishing, they’d come up and they’d spot the odd whale. One of my daughter-in-laws, she would stand back from the chairs and the husbands and she’d just see them with a naked eye. It was a whole family thing.

Did they start in a tent?

Yes.

Middle of winter?

Yes, the survey started in 2004, for two weeks then. And from 2004 until 2007, these guys sat in a tent with an open front, although they did rig up… it had a piece of rope across and from their middle, down to their feet they had a tarpaulin across, so they were able to keep a bit of the wind out, but they would sit there, on chairs, with their binoculars fastened to them, and look for these whales from daylight to dark, on good days when they could see. And that was from 2003-2007 and then it was decided that the survey, they wanted it for four weeks, so that’s when some of the whalers decided, well if they’re going to sit for four weeks up there, they’re going to have something a bit more substantial.

I would think so! So you built them a hut?

No, my husband and another one of the whalers, they actually went around places in Blenheim and all of the materials were sponsored for that hut. I had written a little note about what they were doing, and how it was involved in the community. One of the big trade stores in Blenheim said bring your truck around on Sunday morning and take what you want. It was amazing. It was unbelieveable.

Just a real, old-fashioned, community response, eh?

It was, and that was the last part of the survey from 2008 to 2015 they’ve been in the hut. It was very comfortable, they had two gas heaters, a stove, a gas bottle stove.

You’d be lucky to ever get rid of them Heather!

Oh, I think they would have liked to come down and, ‘We’ll just go and look for them again!’, but they’ve got to be DNA’d. the guys in the hut, they would look for the whales and then when they saw one, and it was confirmed… the whales always had to be confirmed before any tally could be taken, and then the research boat with DOC staff would go out, and their job was to DNA it and take a photo of the fluke of their tail, because every whale has got a different pattern on its fluke.

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