SPWRC contact details

South Pacific Whale Research Consortium [contact]
24 - 28 February 2002
Auckland, New Zealand

Rarotonga - September 2003

The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium met for its third annual meeting at the University of Auckland from 24 to 28 February, 2002. Research groups active in the Antarctic, South America, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia, New Zealand and eastern Australia were represented.  Regional catalogues of fluke photographs (representing 949 individuals from Oceania alone) were compared to describe regional return and interchange.  Some degree of migratory interchange has been established between adjacent regions of Oceania (the presumed wintering grounds of IWC management Area V and Area VI humpbacks) but no interchange was found with the Antarctic Peninsula feeding grounds (Area I).  Non-systematic surveys and unpublished capture-recapture estimates based on photo-identification indicate that the density of whales remains low throughout the wintering grounds of Oceania and the New Zealand migratory corridor.  Capture-recapture estimates of abundance for New Caledonia based on photo-identification and DNA profiling (genotyping) gave comparable results, indicating a small and possibly closed population of whales on this wintering ground.  Genetic analyses are underway for sloughed skin and biopsy samples collected throughout the Oceania region.

Report of the Annual Meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium
Participants: Michael Poole, Robyn McCullough, David Paton, Claire Garrigue, Rémi Dodemont, Scott Baker, Carlos Olavarría, Kirsty Russell, Rochelle Constantine, Mike Donoghue, Phil Clapham, Nan Hauser, Simon Childerhouse, Nadine Gibbs, Trish O'Callaghan, Olive Andrews, Mark Orams, Vea Kava, Mick McIntyre.

The annual meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium was held from 24 to 28 February 2002 at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  Baker was elected Chair, and welcomed participants to the meeting.  Clapham agreed to act as rapporteur.


Aims and structure

This was the third annual meeting of the Consortium, which was originally constituted informally in 2000 as the South Pacific Humpback Whale Consortium.  Overall, the primary purpose of the group is to coordinate and facilitate research on large whales in the South Pacific region.  Although humpback whales are the focus of much of the work, data are collected on all large whales and the Consortium serves to promote a better understanding of the biology and behavior of all cetacean species in the region.  Participants agreed that documentation of the basic cetacean biodiversity of Oceania should be a primary goal of the Consortium.Members also agreed that, for ethical reasons, the Consortium would not collaborate with any programs of lethal research while such programs continued.  An example (see below) involved comparison of humpback whale photographs taken by the Japanese Antarctic scientific whaling program (JARPA).


Humpback whales

Antarctic PeninsulaNo field work was conducted off the Antarctic Peninsula in 2001 by the Instituto Antártico Chileno.  Organization of the Antarctic Peninsula catalogue was completed; the catalogue currently contains 183 individuals.ChileOlavarría reported a survey of southern Chilean waters over 24 days in November/December 2001 in collaboration with A.R. Hoelzel and M. Flores.  Although many cetaceans were sighted (and some sampled for genetics, including Peale's and Chilean dolphins), no humpback whales were observed.  An attempt to survey in the vicinity of Cape Horn and the Magellan Strait was unsuccessful because of logistical problems.

French Polynesia

Sighting network:

During the 2001 season, the sighting and stranding network received 153 reports of humpback whales.  A total of 275 whales, of which 31 (11%) were calves, were reported from 11 islands (Tahiti, Mo'orea, Huahine, Taha'a, Bora Bora, Maupiti, Mopelia, Tupai, Tikihau, Rurutu and Tubuai).  The earliest report was on 21 May at Rurutu; the first report at Mo'orea, the base of operations for the main research project, did not occur until 26 June.  The last report was on 5 December at Mo'orea.

Vessel surveys:

Boat-based surveys were conducted at three islands during the 2001 field season: Mo'orea in the Society Islands, and Rurutu and Tubuai in the Austral Islands.  A total of 33 individual humpback whales were photographically identified for the first time.  Including the 171 whales identified from previous years (1992-2000), these 33 whales produced a total of 204 whales in the French Polynesia fluke-based photo-id catalog.  Thirty samples of sloughed skin were obtained during the season: 19 at Mo'orea, and 11 at Rurutu and Tubuai.  Songs were recorded at Mo'orea and Rurutu.


Surveys were conducted on three vessels on 60 days from 3 August to 18 November.  Dedicated surveys were conducted using a 5-meter rigid hull inflatable.  Additional surveys were conducted on two local whale-watching vessels.  A total of 49 groups containing 77 humpback whales were observed on 35 of the 60 survey days; 11 individuals (14%) were calves.  The first observation was on 5 August, and the last on 9 November; the first and last observations of calves were on 5 and 26 October, respectively.  Twenty-three individuals were identified by flukes; there were no resightings from previous years.  Other whales were identified by body markings and dorsal fins; some of these had been observed at Mo'orea in previous years, but they were not used in the SPWRC comparisons at the February meeting.  Identified whales were not seen for more than a few days at a time during the season.


During 39 days from 27 August to 27 October, surveys were conducted on board two 8-meter commercial whale-watching vessels.  Whales were observed during all 39 survey days.  A total of 48 groups containing 93 whales were observed, of which 31 (33%) were calves.  However, it should be noted that only three different calves were observed during the entire field season, thus all 31observations of calves were actually repeat sightings of the same three individuals.  This pattern of some cow/calf pairs remaining at Rurutu for several weeks, also noted in previous years, is of particular interest.  Seven whales were photo-identified by fluke pattern, and others by dorsal fin and body markings; only the former were used in SPWRC comparisons during the Auckland meeting.


Surveys were conducted from a dedicated 8-meter vessel during four days from 28 October to 1 November.  The same five whales (one of which was a calf) were observed on each of the four days.  Three individuals were identified by fluke pattern.For 2002, the intention (if adequate funding is obtained) is to conduct field work from Mo'orea, Rurutu and Tubuai for the entire season.Cook IslandsWork in the Cooks in 2001 was characterized by much bad weather. A total of 55 days was spent on the water, involving 190 hours of effort.  Unlike in previous years, field work was confined to Rarotonga. Two brief aerial surveys were conducted for a total of 2.25 hours. There was a total of 43 encounters involving 85 humpback whales. About four and a half hours of song recordings were made.  Notable results included the introduction of an entirely new song in the area. This latter event is particularly intriguing given the discovery by Noad et al. (2000) of a complete shift in song in eastern Australia (introduced from the western Australian population); song recordings from the Cooks will be shared with Noad to see if the new song from eastern Australia has spread through the islands of Oceania.A Fraser's dolphin, stranded in September and was necropsied at the Whale Centre by Nan Hauser. Organs have been preserved in alcohol and the skeleton was saved for analysis and display. SamoaA pilot study was conducted in Samoa in October 2001 to assess the occurrence of cetaceans, to raise awareness by working with local government and organizations, to hold a "national whale workshop" and to examine the potential for whale-watching.  There was a strong emphasis on local collaboration in the work.Survey effort involved 193 vessel hours and a 2.6 hour aerial survey.  Four species of cetaceans (humpback whales, sperm whales, false killer whales, and spinner dolphins) were observed.  Four humpback whale groups involving seven animals were recorded; this included two mother/calf pairs.  A visit to Samoa for the purpose of logistical planning resulted in other humpback whale sightings, suggesting that the October field work may have been conducted after the peak of the season.  Although large numbers of whales were not observed at Samoa, weather was bad throughout the surveys (high wind), and Paton felt that the low numbers of whales observed was probably misleading.Acoustic sampling (n = 161 events) was conducted during the preliminary survey, with cetaceans detected on 52% of sampling events; 22 hours of recordings were made.  Singing by humpback whales was detected in 45 of the 161 acoustic samples.TongaField work was conducted in the Vava'u group of the Kingdom of Tonga from 18 August to 20 September, 2002.  Three vessels was used: a 36 foot monohull, a 42 foot catamaran, and a whale-watching boat.  A total of 293.5 survey hours were logged, of which 109 hours were spent with humpback whales.  In total, there were encounters of 117 humpback groups involving 271 whales; this included 36 calves.  Fourteen recordings (totaling approximately nine hours) of humpback song were made. One other mysticete was observed, probably an Antarctic minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis).Eighty flukes were added to the catalogue, 17 of which were observed in previous seasons at Tonga.  A total of 86 skin samples (12 sloughed skin, 74 biopsies) were taken, and DNA has been extracted from all of these.  Molecular sex determination found that 72% of sampled animals were male.Surveys were conducted in the Ha'apai group of islands from 3 - 22 September, 2002.  A total of 35 whales, including 7 cow/calf pairs were sighted.  Four whales were photo-identified.  These photographs have not been included in the total catalogue from the Vava'u group of islands but will form part of another catalogue of whales sighted outside the primary study area of the Vava'u group.  They were not included in comparisons made at the Auckland meeting.NiueNon-systematic surveys of the waters around Niue were conducted aboard a 10.2 m sailing yacht, the Anne Marie, during late August and early September. Three cow/calf pairs were encountered and two ID photographs were collected.New ZealandPhotographs of three humpback whales were taken at Kaikoura in June 2001.  Another new fluke was added to the New Zealand catalogue from 1995, bringing the total catalogue size to ten.  Two whales photographed off New Zealand, one in the Bay of Islands in 1994 and one off Kaikoura in 1998, have been matched to the New Caledonia catalogue.  These two individuals currently represent the only matches to the small New Zealand catalogue, which has now been compared to all other photo collections in Oceania.Two entanglements in crayfish pots were recorded in June, one off the Kaikoura Peninsula and the other to the north of Kaikoura.  One whale was entangled in the buoy line but was cut free by a whale-watching boat.  The other was more seriously entangled, but was also cut free by a local fisherman.  The fact that these incidents occurred when observers were present raises the question of how many unreported entanglements occur in New Zealand waters.New CaledoniaWork in New Caledonia was conducted from 3 July to 21 September 2001; surveys were expanded in the south to include the Isle of Pines, and a research cruise was conducted along the western coast of New Caledonia to and including Isle Surprise off the northern coast.  Effort totaled 487 hours and 3718 nautical miles of survey on 76 days at sea for the southern part of the study area; and 140 hours and 965 miles over 20 days in the northern area.  An additional 325 hours of land-based survey work were conducted in the south.  One hundred and eighty humpback whales were recorded, and 68 were identified; of these, 49 were new to the regional catalogue.  A total of 86 biopsies were taken.Eastern AustraliaThe Cape Byron Whale Research Project (Southern Cross Institute for Whale Research) ran its seventh year of field work in 2001.  The project is conducted in collaboration with New South Wales National Parks and Newcastle University.  A land-based survey was conducted between 23 June and 8 July 2001.  Total effort was approximately 141 hours.  In total, 344 groups of 573 humpback whales were observed.  Average pod size was 1.67 whales.A vessel survey was conducted over the same dates as the land survey.  Total effort was 106 hours over 14 days.  In all, 72 groups consisting of 154 humpback whales were observed.  A total of 145 sloughed skin samples were collected from 56 unique individuals.  Average pod size was 2.14 whales.Photo analysis is incomplete, but total catalogue size from Cape Byron is estimated at between 400 and 500 individuals.  Humpback whale photo-identifications are in the process of being analyzed against data from previous years, and analysis of the life histories of known individuals is still under way.  A student at Southern Cross University is currently scanning all images and compiling a digital catalogue to permit easier access and matching.  A full analysis of all photos is expected to be complete by December 2002.Mike Noad is now working with the project, resulting in the addition of extensive acoustic sampling; this includes a "real-time" feed from an anchored acoustic buoy which was the subject of considerable public interest during the season.FijiPaton noted that he has recently gained access to the field notes of Bill Dawbin, who conducted Discovery tagging cruises in several South Pacific locations.  These notes have never been published, and represent a potentially valuable source of information on humpback whales in these areas.  Paton has conducted preliminary analysis of land-based sighting survey data in these notes, which record some 1600 sightings of humpback whales in Fijian waters.  Paton and Clapham produced a draft of a note on Dawbin's Fijian data for submission to IWC in April.  Paton will go to Fiji for logistical scouting in April.

Regional comparisons

During the meeting, participants from the various field sites represented by the SPWRC undertook comparisons of new fluke photographs (i.e. those collected or newly available in 2001) with regional catalogues.  Results of these comparisons are summarized in Table 2.  There were a total of seven new fluke matches; combining these with matches from previous years gives a total of 18 fluke matches, plus two others by dorsal fin.  The largest number of 2001 matches (four in total) was made between New Caledonia and Tonga.  The total catalogue size from Oceania alone is 949 individuals.

Genetic analysesGarrigue et al. (2002a) reported results of genetic analyses of 321 samples of humpback whales; 217 of these were collected prior to 2001.  A 550 bp portion of mtDNA was sequenced and 11 microsatellite loci were amplified for the 321 samples.  Two of the 11 loci had problems and were not used in the analysis.  The nine remaining loci were used to generate a DNA profile for each whale. The probability of a match by chance based on these DNA profiles was  extremely low.Based on the DNA profiles, the 321 samples were determined to come from 229 unique individuals.  Eleven animals were identified that were not photographed, and 5 missed identifications (i.e., photographs previously considered to represent unique individuals) were discovered as a result of the genetic analysis.  The sex ratio of the profiled individuals was 89 females to 139 males.  Forty-four animals have been genetically resighted.A capture-recapture model based on the photo-identification database gave an estimate of 355 (95% CI = 279-432) for the years 1995-2001 and an estimate of  520 (95% CI = 366-674) from the DNA profile database.  Capture-recapture estimates for males and females based on the seven-year study were found to be approximately equal, although the CV of the female estimate was larger.Olavarría summarized analyses of samples from Tonga (257), the Cooks (128), French Polynesia (34), the Antarctic Peninsula (67), IDCR Antarctic samples (14) and Australian Antarctic samples (3).  Sexing will be completed in the near future, and the standard set of 11 microsatellite loci will be run.  The work will examine population structure using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA.  Standard methods and loci for DNA profiling have been established in collaboration with C. Garrigue of New Caledonia, with S. Caballero of Project Yubarta, Colombia, and with Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia.Other SpeciesBaker reported on a project studying gene flow (genetic connectedness at the social and regional levels) among dolphin species in the South Pacific.  This work involves collaboration with French Polynesia (Poole), New Zealand (Bernd Würsig), pilot whales, dusky dolphins, Hector's dolphins, spinner dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins and bottlenose dolphins.  The project is funded by a Marsden grant from the New Zealand Royal Society for three years and will support two doctoral students.Baker also summarized work on a web-based database for species identification for DNA surveillance (see www.dna_surveillance.auckland.ac.nz).  Garrigue reported that work on dugongs was being conducted in New Caledonia.Poole continues to work on rough-toothed dolphins and spinner dolphins in French Polynesia; this work has recently been expanded to include genetic analysis.Hauser said that she would be conducting a cetacean survey at Penrhyn, a remote island in the northern Cooks.  Dolphins are known to occur there, but little is known of species or status.  Research on beaked whales continues in the Cooks on an opportunistic basis.


There are several other areas in the South Pacific which could be usefully surveyed with regard to humpback whales.  Among these, it was decided that the highest priority was Fiji, because of the recent availability of information on humpback whale occurrence there in the 1950's (see above).  Anecdotal reports suggest that humpback sightings are not common at Fiji today, and a survey of the area to assess status was imperative.The Chesterfield Islands will be the subject of an exploratory survey by Garrigue in 2002.  The whaling history of humpbacks at the Chesterfields is reasonably well known, and participants agreed that it should be surveyed soon given its apparent importance as a historical habitat for this species.  Similarly, a more extensive survey of Samoa is required, following Paton's exploratory work there in 2001.


SanctuariesThe Consortium commended the Cook Islands for their declaration of a whale sanctuary in local waters.  Participants also commended Hauser for her role in this important development. Michael Poole has succeeded in establishing a whale sanctuary in French Polynesia and Claire Garrigue followed suit in New Caledonia, both after more than a decade of hard work.

PUBLICATIONSThe following manuscripts will be submitted by Consortium members to the 54th meeting of the IWC's Scientific Committee in April 2002: (i) a copy of this meeting report; (ii) a note on the Cook Islands sanctuary declaration in a scientific context (Hauser and Clapham); (iii) a preliminary summary of Dawbin's Fijian sighting survey data (Paton and Clapham; see above); (iv) New Caledonia genotyping (Garrigue); (v) scientific research in French Polynesia, probably in the context of a whale sanctuary there; (vi) preliminary assessment of humpback whales in Samoa (Paton); (vii) a summary of existing information on marine mammals in four island groups of Fiji, Samoa, Vanuata and the Solomons (Paton).The Consortium paper summarizing movements of humpback whales among areas of Oceania as determined by photo-ID matching, will be published shortly (Garrigue et al. 2002b).


The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium gratefully acknowledges the International Fund for Animal Welfare for financial support of the meeting, and the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, for provision of meeting facilities.  The contributions  of many individuals and institutions to field work in Oceania are greatly appreciated.


Garrigue, C., Baker, C.S., Dodemont, R. and Steel, D.  2002a.  Estimating the abundance of humpback whales in New Caledonia using DNA genotyping and photo-identification.  SC/54/H9.Garrigue, C., Aguayo, A., Amante-Helweg, V.L.U., Baker, C.S., Caballero, S., Clapham, P., Constantine, R., Denkinger, J., Donoghue, M., Flórez-González, L., Greaves, J., Hauser, N., Olavarría, C., Pairoa, C., Peckham, H. and Poole, M.  2002b.  Movements of humpback whales in Oceania, South Pacific. J. Cetacean Research Manage. (in press).Noad, M. J., Cato, D.H., Bryden, M.M., Jenner, M-N. and Jenner, K.C.S.  2000.  Cultural revolution in whale songs. Nature 408: 537.

Table 1.  Results of comparisons of photo-id catalogues among areas, with sample sizes of identified individuals used (n) and years of effort. “New” means new matches from 2002 photo-ids. “Total” means total matches for all years. Photos taken in 2002 were not compared to collections from Colombia or Ecuador; however, a previous partial comparison of Oceania flukes to these collections revealed no matches.

Area n Years NZ TG CI FP  
      New Total New Total New Total New Total Total
New Caledonia (NC) 261 1991-2002 0 2 1 11* 0 0 0 0 13
New Zealand (NZ) 11 1994-2001     0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tonga (TG) 452+ 1991-2002         3 7 0 0 7
Niue 2 2000-2001             0 0 0
Cook Islands (CI) 72 1998-2002             0 1** 1**
French Polynesia (FP) 231 1992-2002                  

*Does not include one match to Tonga made by dorsal fin.
**Does not include one match to French Polynesia by dorsal fin

Address for correspondence:
Nan Hauser, The Secretariat
South Pacific Whale Research Consortium
P.O. Box 3069
Avarua, Rarotonga
Cook Islands
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