Summer 2021 Whale Watching Highlights

It’s been a while between blog posts, so here’s a bumper edition to update you on what we’ve been up to since our last one. From long-lost whales to barnacle bling, it’s been an action-packed time in the Hauraki Gulf!

We were thrilled to be back cruising in July and August last year, sighting pygmy blue whales and Bryde’s whales – but our joy was short-lived as Auckland returned to Alert Level 3 and safaris were once again suspended for a short time.

Throughout the rest of 2020 our passengers enjoyed plenty of sightings of common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, orca, mako sharks and Bryde’s whales.

As the weather grew warmer in November we began to see common dolphin calves – always a crowd favourite! And of course there were plenty of seabirds, especially gannets in large workups with the common dolphins.

2021: whales, jellyfish and sailboats – oh my!

In January 2021 we were excited to encounter Bryde’s whale #54, who we hadn’t sighted since 2011! Researchers believe there are around 140 Bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf, so it’s always a treat to meet up with one we haven’t viewed for some time.

On a smaller scale, a picture of a bumper serving of turritopsis rubra in our plankton sample was a surprise hit on our social media last month. These beautiful, crimson-centred hydrozoans are known as the ‘immortal’ jellyfish, because if they become injured, stressed out, sick or old, they can revert to their polyp form and start over! It sounds like they’ve been seen in large numbers at beaches around the Gulf this summer. The good news is they are not known to sting people.

This summer Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf are playing host to some giants of a different kind – the huge and technologically impressive AC75 sailboats taking part in the Prada Cup and America’s Cup. Our safari passengers have enjoyed seeing the teams out training and racing. On one memorable occasion the boats formed the perfect backdrop to a pod of orca, including a juvenile.

Hitching a ride on an orca?

Speaking of orca, a new research paper came out in Biodiversity Journal this month, co-authored by Dr Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust. Dr Visser and her colleagues have been studying the existence of tassel barnacles (Xenobalanus globicipitis) on New Zealand orca and looking at all the valuable information we can glean from them, from climate change indicators to using them as biological markers for identification.

The star of the paper is an orca known as Māia, who has close to 80 tassel barnacles adorning her tail and fins – more than any other orca ever recorded. The paper used sightings data and images from our safaris, and we’re very happy to have assisted with it.

You can read the full paper here.

False killer whales bring real joy

So far this February we’ve enjoyed many picturesque encounters with common dolphins, exhibiting all types of behaviour from feeding and mating to playing, and a Bryde’s whale sighting over the Waitangi long weekend.

A couple of days later we had an encounter that left our whole crew buzzing and our skipper jumping for joy – a large pod of pseudorca along with close to 200 oceanic bottlenose dolphins! Skipper Sarah-Lyn had waited eight long years for this, her first sighting of ‘false killer whales’ – and watching them surround Dolphin Explorer was everything she’d ever hoped for.

Pseudorca are not regular visitors to the Hauraki Gulf. Our last sightings of them were this time last year, right before we went into New Zealand’s first long lockdown, and before that we hadn’t seen them on safari since 2012!

If you do see pseudorca anywhere around New Zealand please make sure you report the sighting to the FAR OUT Research Program by calling 0800 FAR OUT.

So it’s been an eventful summer so far, and we’re looking forward to more exciting encounters throughout 2021.

If you haven’t already, make sure you’ve liked and followed us on Facebook or Instagram to see all our latest encounters!

– Published February 2021