The Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary

Nan Hauser and the Cook Islands Prime Minister, Dr. Woonton, receiving the Gifts to the Earth Award from WWF for the sanctuary.

Nan Hauser and good friend, Rawiri Paratene, who was the speaker at the Gifts to the Earth event. Rawiri stars as the grandfather in 'Whale Rider'.

Nan Hauser and Phil Clapham

Cook Islands Whale Research, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA

On 19 September 2001, the Government of the Cook Islands declared a whale sanctuary in the territorial waters of that island state. Here, we present a brief description of the Sanctuary, together with a list of cetacean species known or believed to inhabit the region. We also summarize information on ongoing research efforts aimed at marine mammals in the Sanctuary, with particular focus on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Boundaries and area

The Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary (CIWS) encompasses an area of approximately one million nm2 and includes all of the territorial waters of the Cooks (Figure 1). Latitudinally, the Cook Islands lie between approximately 7º S and the Tropic of Capricorn; the longitudinal boundaries of the Cooks are between 156º and 167º W, with the Cooks lying between French Polynesia to the east and Samoa and Niue to the west. There are two major island groups, the Southern and Northern Cooks; together, these comprise fifteen inhabited islands, the largest of which is Rarotonga.

Current whale sanctuaries across Oceania
Current whale sanctuaries across Oceania (not including Tokelau)

Cetacean species in the sanctuary

There is a considerable diversity of cetacean fauna within the CIWS. Species which are known to exist in this area are summarized in Table 1; other species whose presence in the region is likely based upon unconfirmed observations, or on knowledge of their distribution elsewhere in the South Pacific, are listed in Table 2.

Species known to occur in the CIWS include four baleen whales and ten odontocetes. The occurrence in the region of an additional two mysticetes and nine odontocetes is considered likely.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales utilize the waters of the CIWS during the austral winter. The result of directed studies undertaken since 1998 indicate a consistent seasonal presence in the region, from at least July to October (Hauser et al. 2000, SC/54/O14). Observations of newborn calves, as well as singing behavior and competitive groups, strongly indicate that the waters of the CIWS are used by humpback whales for both calving and mating.

Given upon the longitudinal position of the Cooks, it is likely that the humpback whales found in the CIWS are part of the IWC Area VI management stock. Discovery marks shot or recovered in nearby areas of the South Pacific generally support the belief that this region should be considered part of Area VI for management purposes (Mikhalev 2000). Individually identified humpback whales observed in the Cooks have been matched to French Polynesia, Niue and Tonga (Garrigue et al. 2002), indicating migratory connections among these areas of Oceania.

The current status of humpback whales in the CIWS is not clear. It is likely that this population has still not recovered from the overexploitation to which it was subject in its high-latitude feeding grounds in the Antarctic. Area V and Area VI humpback whales were greatly reduced by whaling, including extensive illegal catches by the USSR (Yablokov et al. 1998, Clapham and Baker 2001). In particular, almost 13,000 humpbacks from these two areas were killed in the 1959/60 season alone (Mikhalev 2000). Observations from the Cooks and other areas of the South Pacific indicate that recovery of this species has been slow throughout Oceania (Garrigue et al. 2002).

Research in the CIWS

Research in the CIWS is currently focused on continued study of humpback whales, on beaked whales, and on documentation of cetacean diversity in the region. Some details of these two topics are given below.

Humpback whales

The long-term study of humpback whales begun in 1998 will continue indefinitely. The work is currently based at Rarotonga, but additional surveys have been (and will be) conducted elsewhere in the Cooks. The major objectives of this study are: (i) to estimate the abundance of humpbacks in the region; (ii) to document habitat use and behavior of whales in the Cooks; (iii) to assess the degree of exchange between the Cooks and other areas of the South Pacific using photo-identification; and (iv) through the collection of biopsy samples from the Cooks, to contribute to an ocean-wide investigation of the genetic structure of South Pacific humpback whales.

Beaked whales

At least two species of beaked whale (Cuvier's and Blainville's) are known to occur in the waters of the CIWS (Table 1). Cook Islands Whale Research has recovered four ziphiid skulls as well as other skeletal remains, primarily from Rarotonga. Beaked whales are sometimes encountered during surveys off Rarotonga, and a project to document the occurrence, distribution and behavior of these animals is currently funded.

Cetacean diversity surveys

To date, surveys aimed at establishing the occurrence of cetaceans in the CIWS area have been conducted at Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Palmerston Atoll. However, additional surveys are planned in other areas, with the immediate priority being the island of Penryn in the Northern Cooks. Eventually, it is hoped that all the main island areas can be systematically surveyed.

Collaboration with other institutions

Cook Islands Whale Research is a member of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC). SPWRC serves as a vehicle for collaboration among research institutions working on cetaceans in the South Pacific region, and involves work in French Polynesia, the Cooks, Tonga, American Samoa, Niue, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Australia (see SC/54/O14). Photographs and biopsy samples collected in the Cooks have already contributed to important inter-area comparisons within the Oceania region (Garrigue et al. 2001, SPWRC 2001, SC/54/O14).

Educational programs

Cook Islands Whale Research has conducted educational programs for all schools and for the local community in general on Rarotonga. Additional programs have been run on Palmerston Atoll and Aitutaki.

In April 2002, The Cook Islands Whale Center opened in Avarua, Rarotonga. This institution features educational displays, a whale museum, and interpretive programs. The Museum is aimed primarily at local people, but also caters to tourists.

Whaling history

As noted by Hauser et al. (2000), the Cook Islands do not appear to have ever been a major site for whaling. Maps compiled by Townsend (1935) from American whaling logbook data show only three records of humpbacks taken in the vicinity of the Cooks, but it seems likely that these whales were encountered opportunistically by vessels en route to more established grounds at Tonga or elsewhere in the southwestern Pacific region. Documentation of local shore-based whaling in the Cook Islands is sparse, although there are reports of whales taken by natives at Rarotonga. That the focus of these catches was the humpback is suggested by a local tradition that the flowering of the Ngatae (Indian Coral) tree during July represented a cue for local whalers to prepare boats and equipment for the arrival of the first whales (McCormack, 1990); this coincides with the timing of the humpbacks' migration into Cook Island waters. The other plausible target species, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), is much less seasonal in its occurrence.

Discovery tagging

We have recently learned that fisheries officers in the Cooks had been given Discovery tags in the 1960's, for use with humpback whales. A surviving fisheries officer recalls tagging at least two dozen humpbacks in the waters around Rarotonga. We are currently attempting to discover more about this effort, and whether recovery of any of these tags occurred elsewhere.

Protective measures

Following the declaration of the CIWS, the government of the Cook Islands enacted a set of regulations aimed at the protection of cetaceans within Sanctuary waters. As a result, it is now forbidden to kill, injure or harass whales and other cetaceans within the Sanctuary.


Clapham, P.J. and Baker, C.S. 2002. Modern whaling. In: Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B. & Thewissen, J.G.M. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, pp. 1328-1332. Academic Press, New York.
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. 2002. Movements of humpback whales in Oceania, South Pacific. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 4 (in press).
Hauser, N., Peckham, H. and Clapham, P.J. 2000. Humpback whales in the southern Cook Islands, South Pacific. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 2: 159-164.
Leatherwood, S., Grove, J.S. and Zuckerman, A.E. 1991. Dolphins of the genus Lagenorhynchus in the tropical South Pacific. Mar. Mammal Sci. 7: 194-197.
Mikhalev, Yu. 2000. Biological characteristics of humpbacks taken in Area V by the whaling fleets Slava and Sovietskaya Ukraina. SC/52/IA11.
SPWRC. 2001. Report of the annual meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium. Available from SPWRC Secretariat, P.O. Box 3069, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
SPWRC. 2002. Report of the annual meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium. SC/54/O14.
Townsend, C.H. 1935. The distribution of certain whales as shown by logbook records of American whaleships. Zoologica 19: 1-50 + 6 maps.
Yablokov, A.V., Zemsky, V.A., Mikhalev, Y.A., Tormosov, V.V. and Berzin, A.A. 1998. Data on Soviet whaling in the Antarctic in 1947-1972 (population aspects). Russ. J. Ecol. 29: 38-42.

Table 1. Cetacean species known from confirmed scientific observations to occur in the Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary.
Scientific name
Common name
Megaptera novaeangliae Humpback whale Hauser et al. (2000). Seasonal occurrence in austral winter; likely breeds and calves in the region.
Balaenoptera borealis Sei whale  
Balaenoptera musculus Blue whale Probably B. m. brevicauda.

Balaenoptera bonaerensis or

Balaenoptera acutorostrata sp.

Antarctic minke whale or Dwarf common minke whale Species uncertain.
Physeter macrocephalus Sperm whale Often observed offshore breaching.
Orcinus orca Killer whale Few miles from reef.
Globicephala macrorhynchus Short-finned pilot whale Mostly observed by fishing boats.
Lagenorhynchus australis Peale's dolphin Leatherwood et al. (1991).
Ziphius cavirostris Cuvier's beaked whale Observed both alive and stranded.
Mesoplodon densirostris Blainville's beaked whale Observed both alive and stranded.
Delphinus delphis/frontalis Common dolphin  
Stenella longirostris Spinner dolphin Frequently observed.
Stenella attenuata Striped dolphin  
Lagenodelphis hosei Fraser's dolphin Stranding in Rarotonga in 2001.
Peponocephala electra Melon-headed whale Stranding in Rarotonga in 2010.
Grampus griseus Risso's dolphin  
Table 2. Cetacean species likely to occur in the Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary, based on either equivocal local reports or knowledge of their distribution and range in the South Pacific Ocean.
Scientific name
Common name
Balaenoptera edeni Bryde's whale
Balaenoptera physalus Fin whale
Pseudorca crassidens False killer whale
Feresa attenuata Pygmy killer whale
Steno bredanensis Rough-toothed dolphin
Tursiops truncatus Bottlenose dolphin
Stenella attenuata Spotted dolphin
Kogia breviceps Pygmy sperm whale
Kogia simus Dwarf sperm whale



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