More about the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre

Rarotonga, Cook Islands, South Pacific

Have you ever wondered how whales sleep or how fast a spinner dolphin spins through the air with a glorious leap?

Have you ever held a whale vertebra or listened to a humpback singing while standing on its head upside down in its watery realm?

Visitors to the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre will be introduced to the fascinating world of whales and dolphins and experience a plethora of awareness, knowledge and fun.

Oceans cover over three quarters of the Earth's surface. In these waters live ancient whale mysteries. What could be more dynamic than a center where people of all ages come together and learn, find solutions to problems and help unravel these mysteries?

Here you will meet the humpback whales, the spinner dolphins, and the elusive beaked whales of the Cook Islands. Humpbacks come to these waters on their 4000 mile migration from Antarctica. In September 2004 we will satellite tag a humpback whale and track its migration on a computer screen at the center! How can it be that "White Socks" a humpback seen in Rarotonga in August of 1999 was seen off of Tonga six weeks later over a thousand miles away!?

The centre offers hands on educational activities, electronic game boards, extensive outreach presentations, videos, guest lecturers, visual displays, posters, murals and photographs thereby teaching environmental awareness, the protection of ecosystems and ultimately all life in the sea.

Located at the edge of the Rarotongan mountains and one minute from town, the center is easily accessible by foot, motorbike or car and allows ample parking for school groups and hotel tours. It is a five minute walk from the wharf where yachts and shipping vessels from all over the world drop their anchor.

Humpback whales migrate into the South Pacific waters of Oceania from summer feeding grounds in the high latitude waters of the Southern Hemisphere. Humpbacks were subject to intensive commercial exploitation in Antarctica and other austral waters in the 20th century, with 208,359 reportedly killed between 1904 and 1999. Besides the massive slaughter of humpbacks, 360,644 blue whales; 725,116 fin whales; 203,538 sei whales; 401,670 sperm whales; 4,338 right whales; 116,568 minke whales; 7,757 brydes whales and 11,631 unspecified whales were killed. These are reported catches and does not include whales that were taken by islanders and private whalers. The thought is staggering.

We built this centre as a memorial to them.

In February of 1999, a consortium was formed in Auckland, New Zealand as the humpback whale researchers across Oceania came together for the first time to compare their research findings. This included photo ID and tissue collection to study the occurrence, distribution, behavior, abundance, genetics and habitat use of humpbacks at each study site. The center will be a reflection of our discoveries as a team and the people of the Cook Islands and the yachtsmen passing through Rarotonga and visiting the outreach center add their knowledge to the data base. It is a place to collect stories of the past, to display whale bones islanders have collected over the years, to learn more about the history of whaling in the Cook Islands and to compare findings between the Cook Islands, Colombia, Moorea, New Caledonia, Tonga, New Zealand and Australia.
Rarotonga has become the official address for the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium and the office is located in the Takuvaine Valley.

Video Library

We have an extensive library of videos including beaked whales, humpbacks, blue whales, fin whales, spinner dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, etc:

Videos created by CCRC.
Videos of Palmerston Atoll, Aitutaki and Rarotonga.
Underwater videos of the Cook Island humpbacks.
Videos on sharks, turtles and other animals
Television documentaries


A collection of whale, dolphin, shark, turtle, and general books about the ocean are available for public use.


Which whale was seen in Rarotonga and then in Tonga three weeks later?

Which whale was seen in Moorea one year and in the Cooks a couple of years later?

Match the whale flukes

Lateral pigmentation as underwater identification

Name that whale! Children will learn the specific names of the whales (along with the Latin names) and in some cases have the chance to name them.

Listen to the whale song and guess what year and island it was recorded off.
Who's singing that song?

Who's making that sound? Learn the many sounds and voices of the cetaceans.

How much do whale body parts weigh? (i.e.: a blue whale tongue weighs 7,000 pounds … as much as an elephant!)

What would you do if... (set up situations with whales around a boat, so that this would be a fun way to learn the rules, regulations and whale watching guidelines)

How long can a whale hold his breath? Have a timer so that kids can time themselves to see how long they can hold their breath.

Local children paint an ocean mural along the side of the building.

Children's whale carving classes taught by famous wood carver Mike Tavioni in his wood working shop across the road.

A scenic walk up hospital hill with a telescope to find whales passing by the island.

What is in a blow? Have a list of the constituents that are found in the spray that shoots up from the blowhole when a whale takes a breath.

Art box/ with drawing materials and other crafts to create pictures of whales with a child's art gallery to hang them up.

Letter writing corner/ pens, paper, envelopes, and instructions on how to write an effective letter to protect whales. Proper addresses of politicians and government officials.

Coloring book of marine creatures of the South Pacific

Games and game boards

Students conduct experiments from the shore (i.e.: count the number of blows of humpbacks and the minutes in between )

Field trips

Costume box / opportunity to dress up as whalers, pirates, Greenpeace activists

Put on a puppet show with rubber whale hand puppets


Tools of scientific inquiry (hydrophones, underwater cameras, biopsy darts, etc.)

Migration routes

Feeding techniques in Antarctica ( i.e.: bubblenetting )

Calves and nursing (what makes a whale a mammal?)

Whale oil rendered from whale blubber

Words used in whale research . . .from A to Z

Display of feeding areas ( to show the fisherman that there is no competition with fishing)
What, where and how much do whales eat?


Slide shows

Hanging mobile with 4 spheres to show amount of land versus water on the planet.

How big is a whales eye (rubber life size eyeball so that kids can pick it up)

Rarotonga from the air/ volcanic history (photos by Ewan Smith)

Plastic & chemical pollution.

Articulated skeletons

History of strandings

Mural of food chain

The importance of phytoplankton and zooplankton
(Bill Curtsinger and Mary Cerullo's books SEA SOUP)

Poster of species sighted in the last 20 years off the Cook Islands.

Geography / geology / water temp. History of Rarotonga / how many millions of year ago were these volcanic mountains formed/ water depths off the reef. Why do humpbacks travel right up to the reef? Why do beaked whales prefer deep water and canyons or trenches as their habitat?

We hope to inspire an awareness and appreciation of the ocean and the life within it by focusing on these critical components…


Ecological principles

Management & Conservation

People, Culture and Wildlife

Trends, Issues and Consequences

Responsible Human Action

Other issues:

Local Government / cooperative management

Water quality of Rarotonga's water / work with the existing committees.

Sponsors? Local effort / pride in the community

University courses
Students from universities around the world study with the Cook Islands Whale Research team. Along with their classes and hands on experience, students (individually or as a group) create displays and projects for the museum integrating life science, earth science and/or physical science.

The majority of tourists that visit Rarotonga are New Zealanders and Australians. The total number of identified humpback whales off of New Zealand since 1994 totals 6 whales!
New Zealand was the focus of an intensive hunt from numerous shore stations.
It appears to be one of several examples of populations of mysticetes that were virtually extirpated by whaling, and which have not been repopulated by immigration from other areas; this may be due to the effective loss of the cultural memory of a particular location or migratory route. This outreach center attracts and interests many tourists.


Objectives and methodology of our research

From turtles to whales and puddles to oceans. What's so important about water?
Awareness about chemicals, toxins, pollution . . . streams flowing into oceans.
How what we put down our drains affects our oceans, the life in the oceans, our drinking water, our crops and ultimately our own health.

Teachers research seminars/
lesson plans
resource info
color photographs/ posters and illustrations
audio and video tapes
encouragement of teachers to incorporate stimulating activities into their lesson plans.

A gallery of photographs from over the years, presenting research vessel boat drivers, assistant researchers, contributors to the research project and of course the whales.

"And whales do not know, as they rise up for a big breath of air, that someone is standing on a shore and his heart is filling up.
Filling up and ready to burst. Whales do not know how they change people, how they make them better, how they make them kind.
Like angels appearing in the sky, whales are proof of God."

From The Whales, by Cynthia Rylant

Mission: to conduct benign research on the biology of cetaceans and raise awareness of marine conservation issues in an effort to conserve whales, dolphins and the ecosystems they inhabit. I believe that the Cook Islands Whale Education Center will allow this mission to be accomplished in proportions never imagined and will change the perception of life in the sea to the individuals that come through it's doors, having a positive effect on the future of cetaceans and the worlds oceans.

Click for more images Click for more images

Click here to view a gallery of paintings and drawings created by the children of Rarotonga at the end of the Whale season here in 2003 in honour of the visit from Rawiri Paratene from the movie whale Rider.



© Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, 2004-13. All photos © Nan Hauser.
Please direct web comments and questions to: info@whaleresearch.org