A Te Papa research team travelled to Dusky Sound: photographer Jean-Claude recalls a surprise encounter with bad-breathed whales.
15 November 2016. We had made good progress since leaving Doubtful Sound on the Southern Winds, the DOC boat that supports conservation programmes around southern New Zealand. We were now sailing past the tip of the Five Fingers peninsula at the northern entrance of our destination. This was Dusky Sound, which slowly unfolded its string of islands, each sliding along ever receding planes against a backdrop of mist feathers floating over the distant ranges. The sea was near glassy, only the boat engine and bow wave splashes broke the eerie atmosphere.
“Two humpbacks ahead”! Eagle-eyed skipper Peter Young had beaten us again in wildlife spotting (he was unbeatable for red deer at infinity). He slowed down the boat and stopped it altogether, still a fair distance from them. The two giants not only seemed oblivious to our presence, but slowly moved in our direction, forcing a zoom out followed by frenetic lens changes as the “targets” outgrew frame after frame until shadowing the boat on either side. Holy wow! Online images of a humpback whale breaching towards a half tipped fishing boat flashed past some nervous minds. Fortunately “our” whales were in an inquisitive and seemingly friendly (in other words reassuring) mode rather than in some show off spectacular.
Humpback whales get their name from the hump at the base of their dorsal fin. At 12-15 metres long and a decent 25-40 tons when stepping on a scale, adults are in the top league as far as whale (or any animal) size is concerned. They migrate south past New Zealand towards the Ross Sea between September and early December, mostly along the west coast and mostly alone or in twosomes. So our smiling companions were not completely appearing out of the blue, although from our perspective they did. Peter at any rate sees humpbacks regularly off Fiordland.
The two giants were now herding us up, their huge black and white mottled flippers slowly moving like giant wings. No inspection of our boat would have been complete without checking the underside of the hull, which both humps thoroughly did, slowly diving under one side of the boat to rise again on the other. Needless to say the primates on board were completely ecstatic, running, shouting and brandishing sticks shaped like zoom lenses.
So far so good, but now was the time for one of the whales to get a breath of fresh air. Slowly rising towards the surface, it expired her/his car sized lungs in one explosive yet muted blow. Unfortunately for us, the whale wouldn’t politely wait to completely reach the surface to breath, and so some of the pulverised water film at the nostrils bow wave found its way to the deck. What followed a neurotic lens cleaning was the silent arrival of a whale sized cloud of foul breath, a rather cheeky organic wink to the long white cloud on the distant horizon. Looking for an upwind side to the boat was a waste of time, as there still wasn’t any wind!
The friendly visitors milled around for 15 min or so, their knobbly smiley faces in slow motion just below the glassy surface, turning and diving and sharing with us their literally breath-taking spectacle. In the end they presumably got bored with our garbled (camera) click language, and slowly moved back towards the Five Fingers. The guests on board headed for the beer cooler, the crew back to the wheel. Nice one Peter Young, one doesn’t get much better introductions to Dusky Sound!
Humpback whales. General overview by the Department of Conservation
Dawbin, W. H. 1956. The migrations of Humpback whales which pass the New Zealand coast. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 84: 147-196.