An enthralling blend of rugged mountains, dense tropical jungle and white beaches can be seen from the plane as our team descend into the tiny airport of Rarotonga, the largest and also the youngest island of the volcanic Cook Islands. We are visiting this idyllic island chain in the South Pacific Ocean in an effort to capture 360° panoramic imagery of humpback whales as they pass through these waters on their annual migration and see how the condition of coral reefs can affect the migratory whale population.
While in the Cook Islands we're being hosted by Dr. Nan Hauser, the President and Director of the Center for Cetacean Resreach and Conservation, we'll be joining Dr. Hauser's team of scientists as they satellite tag humpbacks in an effort to learn more about these amazing mammals.
The entire territorial waters of the Cook Islands – Over 2 million square kilometres of ocean – has been a dedicated whale sanctuary since 2001. Here the whales pass the Cook Islands on their annual 4000 mile journey. They sing, mate, give birth or rest here before heading west to warmer waters: Humpback, Fin whale, Minke whale, Bryde's Whale, and Sperm Whale all pass through these islands.
Dr. Hauser identified this region as a "whale hotspot" and settled in the Cook Island's 17 years ago. Her research includes population identity, photo ID, acoustics, genetics, surface & underwater behaviour, navigation and migration of cetaceans. Her satellite tag work includes results on how whales migrate over long distances using linear constant course segments.
With the support of the whole island, she can today easily spot and approach the visiting whales. Fisherman and dive centres in the area help the team's research, as we board her research boat the radio continuously transmits up to the minute information about the latest sightings.
Coral reefs in the Cook Islands are some of the most stunning worldwide. Their recent decline in health has caused concern not only for the fish populations that exist here but also to the mammals who periodically inhabit the area to breed.
Over the last 17 years Dr. Hauser has witnessed the degradation of coral reefs in the Cook Islands which she believes has been triggered by a number of human-driven stressors. Scientists fear that more than 80% of the worlds cetaceans will be affected by global climate change. The whales use the coral reef as a habitat in which to rest during migration, as a place to birth their young and also as an amphitheater to call to mates- when the males sing, the song bounces and echoes off the coral reef. It reaches females in the area and helps them to find each other for breeding.
This whale season, between August 25 and September 6, Dr. Hauser and her team of international scientists have tagged and commenced tracking of seven humpback whales in the waters off the Cook Islands.
"Tagging whales is a tough and dangerous job. Tags for whales need to be implanted in the animal’s thick layer of blubber. Occasionally some of the tags work themselves free of the blubber after days or weeks, but others stay fixed and operate for months displaying the movements of the animals over long periods and often vast distances." says Dr. Hauser.
Satellite tracking, photo identification, genetic fingerprint, acoustics, isotopic analyses and behavioural studies are all activities in which Nan Hauser and her team are engaged daily. Their research aims to provide scientific evidence and new insights into the migratory behaviour and pathways of the whale population (of which very little is known). This data can then be used by scientists, government officials and marine park managers to ensure the right waters are being protected as sanctuaries for the whales, of course we'll need to also ensure the careful management of coral reefs in these zones too.