The Center for Cetacean Research & Conservation

Cook Islands Whale Research Project

Report for the year 2002

The 2002 field season, between June 14 and October 27, 2002 was not as successful as previous years due to high winds and bad weather. There were 59 whales sighted as opposed to 82 whales sighted last year (group size 1 to 3) during 31 humpback encounters documented over a period of 105 days of observation by the research team and many more sightings by fishermen, dive boat operators, tourists and islanders. Because of the bad weather only 76 days were spent on the water. Other observations were conducted from shore. A total of 430 hours 16 minutes were spent combining the effort of R/V Kaukura Whale Research Vessel and F/V Te Mana Karere captained by Wayne Barclay.
Antarctic minke whales were sighted twice off of Rarotonga by dive boats, the occasional breaching sperm whale was observed way off shore, and dolphins were reported only twice during the humpback season. There was one long liner / cetacean encounter on December 22nd where the bodies of most of the fish were eaten off the lines. Approximately 60 to 70 "dolphin-like" animals (probably pilot whales) were reported to be in the area of the "set" the day before
Peponocephala electra (melon headed whales) were observed in Penrhyn on 2 encounters/ December 14th, 2002 and again in February, 2003.
Two humpbacks were reported off the reef in Penrhyn in August.

Days were spent on the water at every opportunity depending on weather. Skin samples were collected for DNA analysis and sent to the laboratory at the University of Auckland. Along with these samples was a piece of whale bone from a stranded humpback skull that washed up in Aitutaki in July. A previous piece had been sent to the lab with last season's samples but immigration officials in New Zealand fumigated the bone and affected the DNA. The new piece has been delivered to the University laboratory where it will be analyzed. A sperm whale that stranded on the reef in Palmerston had its lower jaw removed by Bill Marsters (Fisheries) and I have taken a tooth to the University of Auckland biological laboratories for a scraping to sequence the DNA. Skin, tissue and teeth from the stranded fraser's dolphin in Rarotonga were also transported to the lab for analysis to confirm the species. The dolphin bones are still soaking in water to remove tissue.

Skin Samples from Humpback Whales

Genetic material (DNA) coded with individual whales' attributes were gleaned from samples of the humpback whales skin and body parts. Sloughed skin samples were collected by diving into the footprint of the whale at the surface of the water as they fluked, tail slapped or breached. No samples were collected with a cross bow and biopsy dart this season. A biopsy gun has arrived from "Pax Arms" in New Zealand, to make skin and lipid sampling more efficient and less traumatic to the animal. The President of "Pax Arms" happened to be on holiday in Rarotonga and spent half a day with me, going over the protocols and details of using the gun. Samples were flown to Auckland with the appropriate permits and transferred to the biological lab at the University of Auckland. There they are logged with a unique access number, allowing cross-referencing of photo-ID and field data recorded simultaneously. Samples are preserved and stored according to established protocols for later analysis. DNA is subsequently analyzed to determine the sex and relatedness of individuals and to assess the population identity of Cook Islands whales. Teeth, baleen, organs and other body parts are collected from dead specimens for analysis and determination of death. The remains of the 2 beaked whale skeletons (Ziphius cavirostris) collected on Manuae in June of 2000 for Cook Islands Whale Research, have been studied by CCRC staff, Merel Dalebout (beaked whale geneticist) and Robert Brownell of Southwest Fisheries. They are still waiting to be analyzed by Darlene Ketten of Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital. The bones are now on display at the Whale Education Centre in Rarotonga.
The blue whale vertebrae found behind Harbour house is also on display with a variety of bones from around the islands.
Turtle shells have been loaned to the center by Mel Abuthnott and Iaoba Marsters Sr.
A boiling pot for whale blubber is on loan to the Centre from the library and an original whaling harpoon from a local man.

Significant findings

This season's song was almost non-existent. We had only one and a half days of song on October 14th and 15th. Two hours of song were recorded on the 14th of October off of Matavera Point and Sand River. Song was also heard off of Black Rock the same day yet the wind had picked up and the recording was poor. On the contrary, whale song was abundant throughout the 2001 season. The year before that, during the 2000 season, there was a lapse of song for approximately seven weeks from August 1st to September 17th. The song was recorded on DAT tapes and will be sent to Michael Noad along with the whale song from 1998, 1999, 2000 & 2001. I am in the process of transferring the Digital Audio Tapes to CD format. He will also compare the song to that of Eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, and French Polynesia. Dr. Michael Noad has officially become a member of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium and will be the acoustician for the recordings from the Cook Islands and other nations across Oceania.
What we heard of the song this year was a typical variation of the year before.
As mentioned in last years report, on the 27th of August, 2001, a whale was recorded singing an entirely new song.
(WP #207 South 21°11.960 West 159° 49.282)
We called it the "creaky door, broken chainsaw, laughing monkey song". Despite it's strange composition, the "laughing monkey" phrase was incorporated into the Cook Islands whale song on September 2nd, 2001 . This whale sang a continuous song for 84 (eighty four) minutes without a break.
(WP # 218 South 21°14.329 West 159°50.487)
Recordings were made for the entire time sequence. This was of great interest to the whale community and the acousticians, although it is believed that he had to come up for a breath or two during that time even though he was not observed doing so. Often when a male is singing, he will continue the song as he surfaces, with barely an exhalation (with no visible blow) and inhale quickly at the surface without stopping the song. (note: We have heard whale song off of Rarotonga almost every day of the 2003 field season)

Whale Song

The whale vocalizations were recorded using hydrophones (underwater microphones) and a Sony DAT recorder. Photo-IDs, video, and skin samples were collected from singing humpbacks whenever practical. Song structure and form will be compared among the Cook Islands' humpbacks and with songs recorded at other breeding grounds across the South Pacific and around the world. Because humpback song varies geographically, comparative analysis of song will be used in addition to comparative genetic techniques to determine the stock identity of Cook Islands humpbacks.
Some analysis has been done on the whale vocalizations between the mother and calf from the encounter where the calf was in distress. The calf's vocalizations increased when the mother left the immediate area with a male escort and left her calf behind with our research vessel. This is when the calf actually swam to the research vessel and attempted to nurse on the side of it.

We did not experience the level of competitive behaviour again this year as we had in 2000 when we had observed a male displacing another male from a group of 3 animals on the 11th day of observing this particular whale named Woodie. He traveled with 2 females counter clockwise around the island where he encountered another male with whom he displayed aggressive behaviour with ramming, pushing, and chasing. (note: We have observed 3 months of competitive behaviour between males during the 2003 field season)

Mothers and Calves

In 2002 we had 15 encounters with mothers and calves. It appeared that Rarotonga was used as a "nursery grounds" this season as we had very few escorts and only 2 days of singing during the entire season. Note: in 2003 escorts were abundant and we observed frequent competitive behaviour.

No aggressive behaviour from females was displayed as in the year 2000 when a female accompanied by her young calf and an escort, rammed the research vessel twice, blowing bubble screens as a warning and exerting impressive powerful exhalations from her blowholes.

The strange behaviour* from the calf in September of 2000 has to date still not been explained and has fascinated fellow researchers that have watched the underwater footage. Wally and Trish Franklin from the Oceania Project in Hervey Bay, Australia have reported to me that they have observed a calf jaw popping at the surface only once for no definitive reason. This is the only other record of the jaw popping behaviour that I am aware of. (This footage was shown at the 2003 International Marine Mammal Conference with interesting feedback.)

(*loud jaw clapping, expelling air from it's blowholes underwater and displaying arching and jerking motions with his body. Approximately 17 days later the calf still appeared to be troubled with digestive ailments and vomited with its mouth wide open at the surface.)

The regurgitated milk (gastro-esophageal reflux) that was collected from the calf will be analysed for milk proteins.

Baleanoptera bonaerensis?

No further identification was made to the strange whale that was observed in early October of 2000. After sending the data to various whale researchers, it seems that no one can identify the species of this whale. The suggestions range from either a strange variation of a pygmy brydes whale, a pygmy blue whale, a hybrid or possibly a new species. The suggestion by Bob Brownell and Robert Pitman is that the whale is an Antarctic Minke Whale (Baleanoptera bonaerensis) but has since been challenged by others in the field, including myself. Bob Brownell was in Rarotonga at the end of the 2002 whale season and we spent quite a bit of time analyzing the footage of a Baleanoptera bonaerensis that he had on film. The head was distinctly different and Nikki Rumney from The Dwarf Minke Whale Project in Australia has also commented that it does not look like a true southern minke whale.

Both the Cook Islands, New Caledonia and Moorea had fewer whales this year. At the consortium meeting in Auckland last week (end of February) we compared our tail fluke ID's with those of Moorea's over past years to determine whether the same whales that frequent their waters veered off to the west and migrated past Rarotonga this year as an alternative. Again the results of the "matching workshop in Auckland were surprising since we had only one tail fluke match with Moorea in 1999, only one dorsal fin match in 2000 and no matches in 2001 or 2002. This suggests that they are distinct populations. The DNA samples from the 2000 and 2001 season are being analyzed by Carlos Olavarria, working under Dr. Scott Baker at the University of Auckland.


We had our fifth, sixth and seventh match with Tonga at this years Consortium meeting. (February 2003)

1) Humpback Whale: CIMn / Rarotonga on 28 August, 2002 with
ID #Tg 9920 in Tonga on September 11th, 2000. ( 2 adults together)

2) Humpback Whale: CIMn / Rarotonga on 27 September, 2002 with ID #Tg 9920 in Tonga on September 1st, 2000.

3) Humpback Whale: CIMn / Rarotonga on 11 August 2000 with ID# Tg 02/50 in Tonga on September 5, 2002 / escort with + biopsy.


No other work has been conducted in Niue since we discovered a match between a whale seen in the Cook Islands in 2000 and Niue in 2001.

Humpback Whale (Cimn #031/00) in Rarotonga on 7 August, 2000
Humpback Whale (AM01/09, frame 18a) in Niue on 26 August, 2001.

This is the first match with Niue. Minimal photo identification work has been done there in the past. Only 2 tail flukes were collected there in 2001 during a short study. The observation team reported 2 mother / calf pairs.
Other matches were made during last weeks meetings between New Caledonia and Eastern Australia, and New Caledonia and Tonga.


With the upcoming IWC (International Whaling Commission) meeting convening in Berlin at the end of May and June, much of our discussion at the consortium meeting involved politics and the threat of the whaling industry increasing their quotas.

Environment Australia has funded the Consortium with $50,000 (Australian dollars) to pursue our research in Fiji and Vanuatu. The grant is directed towards creating whale sanctuaries across Oceania.

Beaked Whales

With beaked whales and other cetaceans we will continue to document their presence and the construction of a photo-identification catalog. Depending on our encounter rate, more research should follow. Graham Ross in Australia, has shown interest in comparing the findings of beaked whales in the Cook Islands with those in other countries.
We had 2 encounters (total 7 animals) with Mesoplodon densirostris during the field season, both occurring on the same day. Photos and video were taken.

Fraser's dolphin

On September 27th, 2002 a young dolphin beached itself in the shallow water of Rutaki. A swimmer found the dead dolphin and promptly called the "whale research" cell phone to report the finding.
The animal was (waiting for DNA to confirm species) a young Fraser's Dolphin (Lagenodelphis hosei) and was evidently killed from 3 large cookie cutter shark bites.
A total necropsy was conducted on the animal, filmed in digital video and photographed. Since that stranding, no dolphin sightings had been observed until January 26, 2002 when Melvin Arbuthnott observed 8 spinner dolphins off of Black Rock. Fishermen saw few dolphins this year off of Rarotonga but the resident pods in Palmerston and Aitutaki are reportedly doing well.
This was the first documented sighting of a Fraser's dolphin in the Cooks.
This species was not scientifically described until 1956 and was not seen alive until the early 1970's.Because it's appearance falls between Lagenorhynchus and Delphinus, it has been called a Lagenodelphis. A Fraser's dolphin has a shorter beak, a smaller dorsal fin and tinier flippers than a spinner dolphin.
Analysis of prey suggests that the Fraser's dolphin is a very deep diver and can hunt for fish at depths of 250 to 500 metres. This may be consistent to why they are susceptible to cookie cutter sharks that we think may live at depth.. No one has ever observed a cookie cutter shark in the wild other than being caught in nets accidentally or on long lines.
Distribution is poorly known. Most commonly seen in the Eastern Tropical Pacific near the equator and in the Philippines at the southern end of Bohol Strait. Confirmed sightings are from Madagascar, the east coast of South Africa, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Other sightings include Japan, Taiwan and off of Australia in small numbers. Michael Poole reports that they have been observed off of Moorea in French Polynesia.
A newborn animal is approximately 39 inches or 1 metre. An adult reaches 6 1/2 to 8 1/2 feet or 2 to 2.6 metres.
They are frequently found in large schools often mixed with other pelagic cetaceans &rarely seen in inshore waters except around oceanic islands.

Rules and Regulations

With the help of Cook Islanders, the New Zealand Department of Conservation, Marine Resources, World Wildlife Fund, The Center for Cetacean Research & Conservation and the Cook Islands Police Department, I have developed a set of protocols and regulations for Whale Watching in the Cook Islands.
Dr Woonton has expressed a very wise set of rules that will help keep our whales safe and ensure that they will not be harassed in the waters of the Cook Islands. This is by encouraging whale watching from the shore since our reef is so close to the land and the whales come right in against it.
Dr. Woonton's motto is "In the Cook Islands, we don't go to the whales, they come to us." This will hopefully ensure that the whales keep passing by the Cook Islands on their migration. Other countries have talked about adopting this idea by his leadership.

I have continued to present lectures and videos to schools and local groups with excellent results. School groups will integrate the Whale Education Centre into the school curriculum.

I need to express enormous thanks to :
Joan Hauser Daeschler
Helen Hauser Jordan
Doug, Julie, Drew & Ross Macrae
Tap Pryor & Phil Clapham

The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium
Karl and Sue Trayler
Wayne Barclay
Michael Tavioni
Cook Island Divers
Dept. of Marine Resources
International Fund for Animal Welfare
Ali, Jody & JulieAnne and Scott Nelson
And all of the fishermen, school children and tourists that reported whales.

Whale Sanctuary

Again, thank you so very much to the politicians and friends that made the whale sanctuary a reality. Especially Dr. Woonton., George Pitt and Tap Pryor.

As always I submit this report with great enthusiasm. As we unfold the mysteries of these ageless leviathans, I am in awe of their greatness, their gentleness, their beauty and just how much more we have to learn from them.

Thank you so very much to the Cook Islands Government and for all of the support & help from everyone in the Cook Islands that have made this research project a huge success!

Respectfully submitted by Nan Hauser, April, 2003
Cook Islands Whale Research.
P.O. Box 3069
Avarua, Rarotonga


© Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, 2004-13. All photos © Nan Hauser.
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