Matariki also known as the “wellington whale” captivated the countries interest back in the winter of 2018. He was no ordinary whale.
Matariki is a southern Right Whale. SRW are one of New Zealand’s rarest species of whale. However this wasn’t always the case. SRW’s used to be one of New Zealand’s most prevalent whales to inhabit our shores.
Before the whale hunting era began, SRW’s would frequent the north side of the Kaikōura Peninsula, hanging out in the bay over the winter months.
Unfortunately it was their curious and gentle nature that had them be one of the easiest whales to target when whale hunting began, hence the name “The Right Whale”
The population in New Zealand was quickly decimated. Numbers from before the whaling days were believed to be in the tens of thousands . However by the 1920s there were believed to be less than 100 individuals left.
Now there is only one known breeding ground for the SRW in New Zealand, located at the northern end of the Auckland Island groups located about 1000km from Kaikōura and 400 km from the most southern point of mainland New Zealand.
To have Matariki visit the wellington harbour was super exciting news for those researching the SRW populations. The wellington harbour would have once been a breeding ground for the whales pre whaling era, so to have a whale come back to the area suggests that Matariki could well have been checking out new areas that would have once been used by his ancestors, as the population carries on to expand.
It is believed that the New Zealand right whale population is growing at about 4-7 percent per year, which is a good rate of growth considering that females only produce a calf every three years. The total population currently is believed to sit at around 2500 individuals.
To help track the populations researchers use a technique known as photo identification. The white callosities on the head of a Southern Right Whale have a pattern that is unique to each animal. Scientists use photos of whales to identify individuals from these patterns. The University of Otago’s whale photo library now contains more than 700 individuals.
These white patches found around their head and jaw known as callosities are patches of rough skin that are infested with little crustaceans called cyamids. It’s quite literally a living mat of little crustaceans.
Other key characteristics of Right Whale’s include a strongly arched jawline, very dark mottled skin with white patches on the belly and the main difference from all other baleen whales - the absence of a dorsal fin.
There have already been a couple of confirmed sightings of these unique whales around the south island this winter, with the most recent being just yesterday with an individual being spotted right here in Kaikōura. We are usually blessed with a couple of sightings a year between the months of June through to September.
Our hope is that one day the Southern Right Whales will come back to Kaikōura in the numbers that were previously seen but for now we count our lucky stars when we get to see one that’s come for a visit.
Have you seen a Southern Right Whale along the New Zealand coast before? Do you have photos? Citizen research is a huge and powerful tool in helping protect the Southern Right Whales and other marine wildlife found around the New Zealand coast! Send any sighting data you have to the Department of Conservation and they will make sure that it gets into the right researchers hands! Or call 0800 DOC HOT to report a whale sighting!