How to watch whales

I remember going on my first whale watching trip seventeen years ago: dressed up in a red survival suit, travelling off the coast of Vancouver Island (Canada) in a small zodiac. No other boats around but us. The sight and sound of the 14m Gray Whale surfacing beside our small boat shortly after have stayed with me ever since. It was overwhelming experiencing such a charismatic giant! Four years later, I was standing on a clifftop on nearby San Juan Island conducting fieldwork for my Masters degree on whale watching.

Southern right whale, courtesy of DOC

Southern right whale, courtesy of DOC

In the distance I noticed the flotilla of boats approaching. Shortly after we counted 25 orca whales and 125 boats (commercial and private) around them! What was going on? We had only just brought whales back from the brink of extinction from hunting and now it looked like we were ‘loving them to death’ instead!

Since the ‘Save the Whales’ movement of the 1970s whale watching has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry, widely recognized as the antithesis to whaling, and a harmless commercial activity that is equivalent to whale conservation. ‘The Whale’ has become a human passion. People want to observe cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the wild and the demand for close and personal experiences fuels an ever-expanding industry worldwide. With close to half the world’s whale and dolphin species occurring in New Zealand waters, Aotearoa is a popular destination for whale watchers from around the globe. Whale watching in Kaikoura is among the most popular tourist attractions in this country.

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Logging conservation reserves and protected parks – a tragic end to 27 years of our NZ Forest Accord.

Over my 60 years living in New Zealand- Aotearoa, I have felt admiration and pride in the extraordinary achievements of New Zealanders in protecting our natural environment.

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A large number of New Zealanders led by Forest and Bird – right across the full range of the political spectrum of Parliament – have fought to save New Zealand’s native forest and wildlife from logging and pests.

A number of us have then successfully demonstrated through ecotourism that we can create more jobs and sustainable revenue by saving and cherishing ancient trees than through chopping them down for timber.

What drives us is the knowledge that our eco-tourism efforts are helping make sure that New Zealand’s unique native forests and their wildlife are safe, permanently protected and valued for all the extraordinarily valuable roles they perform on Planet Earth.

On Thursday night June 26 2014, my beliefs were dashed in the progress we have all achieved over the last 30 years. On Thursday night our Government rushed through the West Coast Wind-blown Timber (Conservation Lands) Bill under urgency.

There was no opportunity for any public comment.

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Windthrow is a natural part of NZ’s forest dynamics

Windthrow is a natural part of NZ’s forest dynamics of catastrophe-regeneration. Thousands of hectares are levelled every year in our public conservation land forests and have done so for millenia. It is a part of the natural forest cycle in this windy country. Yet we do not intervene to sell the fallen timber in protected forests, any more than harvest kiwi, as it is as natural as the wind and rain. We allow indigenous nature to run wild and free. That is what conservation land is all about.


A dead tree is as valuable as a live one to the functioning of a forest, with up to half the wood being dead or rotting in a typical healthy forest ecosystem. This is what a forest is.

Thousands of species rely on the continual cascade of dying wood for their survival, and on the fertility and energy that is recycled back into the system. Such wood may come from the gradual decline of trees, limb breakage, or more catastophic destruction from windthrow, landslides or disease. This is all part of natural forest dynamics. An area of windthrow is still forest in the long term functioning of such an ecosystem. If the dead wood is not protected, then nor is the forest in the most fundamental sense.

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World leading marine protection?

While John Key is in the US wrangling support for New Zealand seat on the UN Security Council, Murray McCully attended John Kerry’s Oceans Conference, where the Secretary of State said the US and other nations need to take bolder steps to protect marine habitat and combat other threats.

Mother and calf humpback whales

Mother and calf humpback whales

Our government talks about being world leaders in marine protection and having a balanced approach to use and protection.

Despite the recent and welcome creation of the Sub-Antarctic Islands marine reserves and the brand new Akaroa marine reserve, less than 0.5 per cent of our marine environment is in full no-take protection, well below our international commitments.

New Zealand has 54 designated Marine Protected Areas of which 38 have full protection. These 38 are called Type 1 MPAs; the other 16 are Type 2 MPAs that allow for fishing and other extractive uses.

All of our designated MPAs are restricted to our territorial sea out to 12 nautical miles. Our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends well beyond this, and yet none of it is in full protection.

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Hunting birds without guns: A visit to Otamatuna

Wandering through much of Aotearoa’s remnant bush in 2014 can be a lonely experience. One has more chance of seeing a hobbit than a kaka or kokako, and the experience is a long way from Joseph Banks’ much repeated description of the the dawn chorus in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770:

“I was awakened by the singing of the birds ashore, from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile. Their numbers were certainly very great. They seemed to strain their throats with emulation, and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginable, to which, may be, the distance was no small addition.”

Our ruru or morepork

Our ruru or morepork

A couple of years back, while helping the good folks at Goodnature lay some traps in the Orongorongo Valley, I’d been lamenting that the New Zealand birds’n’bush was doing its own take on Silent Spring – with predators rather than pesticides as the culprit. I moaned that the only place I’d heard a decent dawn chorus was on the offshore ‘lifeboat’ islands like Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi.

Robbie Van Dam (Goodnature) and Darren Peters (Department of Conservation) both urged that I had to get up and check out Otamatuna. I’d never heard of Otamatuna, or Te Urewera Mainland Island (‘TUMI’), and Google didn’t shed a lot of light either.

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Táiko across the Pacific

I cautiously peered into a gnarled puriri tree and stared eye to eye with a black petrel. I was elated – the birds were back, all the way from South America and preparing to breed, right here in my backyard.

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Okiwi school student Jordan Edmonds-Griffiths holds a black petrel chick, credit Okiwi School

‘My’ backyard is not mine at all, but is where my husband and I currently live with our seven year old daughter managing a 240 ha pest controlled native wildlife sanctuary in the north of Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Controlling pests is the essential component of the sanctuary work that enables the real interesting stuff to happen – creating a safe haven for our native species. Outside of keeping the rats, cats and rabbits at bay, our work involves the steady restoration of regenerating bush and pasture to habitat suitable to host a variety of threatened species.

One such species is the black petrel or Táiko, a migratory seabird that only breeds on Great and Little Barrier Islands in the Hauraki Gulf. There are only 1500 breeding pairs remaining and the species is in decline.
Black petrels used to be much more widespread – occurring across the North Island and even the upper South Island prior to the 1950’s, but habitat loss and predation have grossly restricted their range. They are ‘slow’ breeders producing just one egg per year from about five years of age. The parents share the incubation of the egg and care of the chick for almost six months throughout the kiwi summer and into the winter.

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Nature’s little warriors

Out of a combination of sheer whimsy and curiosity, I signed myself up to become a KCC Co-ordinator last year.

I had always wanted to smuggle myself onto our Kiwi Conservation Club (KCC) trips.

For the past six years, I have worked as Forest & Bird’s web editor and I’d always look longingly at the kiwi crèche visits and offshore overnighters and quietly cursed the fact that I was 30 years too old.

Indeed, when I first started the job at Forest & Bird, I would discreetly take home large bundles of KCC magazines for a little bed-time reading or ‘research’.

Let’s just say that my inner child has always been very much alive, however, in recent years I felt like this fresh-thinking had been censored out of existence.

A KCC kid painting a decoy fairy tern model that will be placed on our new artificial site on the Kaipara harbour.

A KCC kid painting a decoy fairy tern model that will be placed on our new artificial site on the Kaipara harbour.

I wanted to see the world through the eyes of our young eco-warriors, to re-connect with nature and – through this educational role – get a good grasp on nature’s rules.

I also had a small hope of perhaps teaching the next generation a thing or two about nature.

So I signed myself up to become a KCC co-ordinator.

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Green teachings

My name is Mere Valu and I work with NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (NFMV) which is a BirdLife International affiliate. My work centres on landowning communities – identifying sustainable land use management techniques, initiating forest restoration projects, and empowering Local Conservation Groups (LCGs). On top of this, I run school environment education programs.

Birdwatching in Fiji

Mere Valu birdwatching in Fiji

I am particularly interested to develop an environmental education program for NFMV and this has become possible through a Conservation Leadership Award I received to undergo an internship with Forest & Bird to learn about their kids’ club (KCC) which has been running for over 20 years.

I had the option to choose between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK and F&B in NZ and I chose the latter as it was closer to home and its work related more to the Pacific.

When I first decided on my travel dates I made sure that I came in summer, so I could cope with the less-than-balmy weather but I was greeted by a storm on arrival. It raged for over a week. Windy wellington lived up to its name, something that worried my host family a lot more than me.

Leaving that aside, my internship experience at Forest & Bird has been great – Forest & Bird’s Communications Manager, Marina Skinner and their KCC Manager, Tiff Stewart filled my diary with interesting activities.

The weekend before last, I attended the annual KCC gathering where all the KCC Co-ordinators met to share ideas. I learnt some great lessons from these hardworking volunteers such as organising fun, original and creative activities for both kids and their parents and using available resources resourcefully!

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The secret lives of Wellington cats – uncovered

Our ten week cat-cam pilot study to investigate the wild diets of our cats, their foraging habits and general behaviour has given us several interesting insights into the world of our cats.

A still from one of the cat-cams. Although there was no predation of birds, tracking behaviours like this and even the presence of cats  will deter birds from nesting.

A still from one of the cat-cams. Although there was no predation of birds, tracking behaviours like this and even the presence of cats will deter birds from nesting.

Domestic cats are creatures that live so closely to us, and yet – in NZ at least – studies have been limited. Indeed, this cat-cam study was a NZ first!

The study – initiated by postdoctoral fellow Heidy Kikillus – followed the lives of ten cats living around the neighbourhood near the sanctuary Zealandia (Northland, Highbury, Kelburn, Karori).

Each cat has been fitted with a motion-sensitive camera that was turned on either during the day or at night by their owners to give us a two-hour snapshot of their behaviour.

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Unwrapping an enigma

Little Barrier Island is one of those magical places where time feels as if it stands still and birds, so rare elsewhere, abound. Kokako and saddleback are just part of the everyday soundscape and bellbirds are so common that their song is a constant companion not just an occasional delightful toll. Huge kauri and hard beech trees rise into the mist on this rugged volcanic island.

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I have come here to join the New Zealand storm petrel team for a week, building on last year’s huge success of finding them breeding on the island. NZ stormies were thought to be extinct until rediscovered in 2003. Nests were found last autumn in a deep valley amongst beech and kauri trees.

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