The southern right stuff: Photographing Wellington’s whale

The southern right stuff: Photographing Wellington’s whale

When a southern right whale captured the imagination of Wellington last week with a bout of acrobatics in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour), Imaging Specialist Jean-Claude Stahl was there with his camera to capture some pretty epic moments. Here, he shares them and sheds some light on our new best friend.

A southern right whale (tohorā) has made a splash in Wellington harbour since Monday 2 July, creating traffic chaos in Evans Bay this weekend.

On Thursday 5, the crowd around the harbour was nearly on par with the one watching A Waka Odyssey at this year’s New Zealand Festival. Waking up bleary-eyed from World Cup soccer screens, “right whale in Oriental Bay” on breakfast radio somehow cut through the haze.

As Imaging Specialist at Te Papa, I thought I better do something, grabbed the biggest “gun” in my arsenal (a 400mm lens) and rushed to the “office” on Oriental Bay to get…a parking ticket.

A whale tail is seen out of water with hills in the background
Good morning Wellington. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa
People line the waterfront at Oriental Bay to catch a glimpse of the whale
Nice day at the office: Oriental Bay, 5 July. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa
Crowd of people on the top deck of a boat observe the whale breaching the water
Top heavy crowd snapping the show-off. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa
Man on a boat takes a photo of the whale while his dog looks on
A worried Dalmatian faces the “monster” with the tail between its legs. Photo by and courtesy of David Brooks

Urban legend has it that a visitor to Wellington in the early 1800s complained that whale noises kept him awake at night. I can vouch for whale-induced insomnia in Cape Town, where up to a dozen were splashing and megaphoning (think didgeridoo on steroids) day and night in just about every bay in winter. At Hermanus, east of Cape Town, whale acrobatics can be enjoyed at close range from seaside terraces.

Wellington café owners would thus be wise to updeck for the upcoming whale crowd, although experience in long-term planning would be an advantage. Note that a return to right whale former glory would create some problems for shipping. And don’t mention the fireworks: we may have to celebrate Matariki in midsummer, as some celebrate Christmas in the austral midwinter!

Composite photo showing two moments where the whale has emitted a double blow
The double blow, bow-like mouth line, pale callosities around the mouth and ‘bonnet”, and absence of dorsal fin are diagnostic for a right whale. Photos by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Return of the southern right

As for whale noise control in Wellington harbour, a string of nearby whaling stations sorted this out rather swiftly. After all, they were not called “right” whales for nothing: coastal during the calving season, slow moving, floating when dead, a whaler’s dream. But many a whale’s silent drama (Dieffenbach reports that a calf was often being harpooned before its mother got dispatched in turn).

Population modelling using catch histories have come up with an estimated pre-exploitation New Zealand “stock” of 29,000 to 47,000 individuals. Genetic studies have shown that only 30-40 mature females survived the onslaught, with no single sighting off the mainland from 1928 to 1963.

The population (one of 12 in the southern hemisphere) has now “clawed” (fluked?) its way back to about 2,000 individuals, with the main winter calving ground off the Auckland Islands.

Right whales tagged there with satellite transmitters all moved to summer feeding grounds around the subtropical front south of Australia, where colder heavier subantarctic water sinks below subtropical water.

Such oceanic fronts are areas of enhanced productivity and plankton concentrations, and krill and other small crustaceans are the main prey of these filter feeding giants. Filters here are their two- to three-metre-long bristly baleen plates.

Lobtailing, spyhopping? How to speak whale

So what was the Wellington whale up to while in the harbour? Nice acrobatics, diving bouts, breathing exercises, and periods of siesta.

‘Breaching’ is the technical term for the spectacular lunging out of the water, often twisting, and falling on its back in a mini tsunami.

Whale breaches the water right beside a kayaker
Flipper and belly end of a breach, seconds before a mini tsunami reached the brave kayaker. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

‘Sailing’ denotes when the whale hangs upside down sometimes for a long period with its tail clear of the water. It has been suggested (who says science is boring?) that this is for sailing using its fluke, or some sort of temperature control, warming up with solar radiation or cooling in the breeze.

‘Lobtailing’ is when the tail is lifted clear of the water then brought down sharply to produce a loud slap and shower of spray that “could represent a form of social communication, perhaps alarm, annoyance, or mild threat”.

When ‘Spyhopping’, the whale projects its head vertically from the sea as if to (and probably does) watch the surroundings. The whale did not “spyhop” while I was there, but there are some spectacular images online.

Two photos of the whale playing in the water
Our right whale “imitating” a shark (top, swimming on its side), a seal (bottom, loafing about on its back, flippers up and bushy tailed). Photos by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

At eight days on the counter, “our” whale has equalled the New Zealand record of longest stay in one place for a lonely right whale (a week according to DOC). Latest reports (10 July) suggest that it may have moved on. Hasta la vista, baby!

Close-up of the whale breaching the water
Whale energy. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Further reading


  1. Fantastic blog Jean-Claude! Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos

  2. Hi Jean-Claude, nice blog! Last Thursday was unforgettable. Beautiful Wellington!! I think I am that kayaker. Would you be available to share that or other pictures? Thank you very much in advance.

  3. Thanks for sharing, great read and beautiful photography. This whale brought happiness for so many people, we need more events like this.

    1. Thank you Magdalena. Yes it was amazing to see how many people came out and enjoyed the “show”.

  4. Enjoyed your blog!

  5. Amazing how one small gull turns a great photo to superb. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you John, and I shall forward your congatulations to the small gull (won’t be easy!).

  6. Thanks for the great blog. This whale has filled my heart with so much joy throughout the week. I hope she continues on her journey in safety

    1. Thank you Ria. Chances are that the journey will be a safe one (times have changed!), but as for her or his, we have to wait for Niwa’s expert verdict.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *