I have been lucky enough to be part of the research team from the University of Otago three times now on their expedition to Port Ross, a wonderfully sheltered harbour at the northern end of the Auckland Islands. The aim of the trip is to gather data and study the Southern Right Whale population that spend the winter months there to raise their calves and to socialize.
Working in a piece of paradise
Port Ross is a magical place in the winter months. The light is low and there is an eternal battle between the storm clouds and the rays of sunshine. I have never been to a place that has such an abundance of rainbows. But, in fact, it is not the beauty of the light and the rainbows that we are there for. It is the fascinating, mystical, and goofy creatures that lie beneath the sea that draws us there: The Southern Right Whales!
In the depths of the subantarctic winter, Port Ross is probably, one of the most whaley places on earth. It is difficult to drive a boat in a straight line for a hundred meters without having to stop for a whale. And it is not unusual for our research boat to be surrounded by 10 or more curious whales at a time.
Our home away from home, our family away from family.
Our transport to – and from – the Auckland Islands is an ex-fishing boat called Polaris II. She is our home away from home for the month we are part of the research team.
The Polaris II is an old ship with a motion that has the ability to make even the saltiest sea dog seasick. But she is also a very warm and comfortable base for us to conduct the fieldwork from, once in the sheltered waters of Port Ross.
My main job aboard is a chef. I need to keep everybody well fed and it can be a little challenging to organize a month’s menu for 12 people. There is no chance of popping down to the store if you run out of bread.
I love cooking! but the what I love most about these trips is, being able to also put all my different skills to use. As a photographer, I’m often helping with the photo ID work. And as a sailor, I drive the small boat and tender for the scientists. And I get to do all this surrounded by nature, interesting people and the whale’s songs.
Photography as a tool for reserch and conservation
Each and every right whale has a unique pattern of callosities that can be used to identify the individual. The callosities are made up of roughened, keratinized skin on similar parts of the whale where you might find hair on a human, Above the eye, around the blow whole, along the lips etc, these patches of roughened skin are home to 3 species of crustaceans known as cyamids. It is the cyamids that give the creamy white colour to the callosities. To ensure a good match can be made, we always photograph the whale’s left side. We wait for them to lift their head a little to photograph the callosities on the lip, rostrum and blowhole.
Capturing these images can be quite challenging, as the whales don’t seem to understand they should be smiling when we say “cheese”. It is a game of patience and skill, as the critical moment the whale lifts its head can sometimes only last a split second before the chance has gone.
Auckland Island’s many charms
Although I could never become bored of photographing whales, the Auckland Islands have a huge amount more to offer. Many birds, sea lions, fur seals, and spectacular sceneries are always calling for my camera’s attention too!
The abundance of wonderful subject matter doesn’t make things easy though and the Auckland Islands can be a very challenging place to take photographs! The weather is very changeable and the light is often very low at that time of the year. I often find myself reaching for a towel to dry my camera between shots and shooting at ISOs as high as 6400.
Isolation is not a synonym of wellbeing
Because of its location, is not easy to get to the Auckland Islands and maybe that is one of the things that helps to make it so special! Without human activity, the islands are a refuge for numerous animals to breed and nest.
Unfortunately, nothing is perfect. Some predators were introduced there years ago and the populations of these are now out of control. The wild pig population, for instance, is making it almost impossible for the many birds’ species to thrive. The yellow-eyed penguin population is one of the cases that needs our attention. They are already listed as an endangered species and are the rarest penguins in the world.
Although I hope this wonderful place can be left alone for the species that call it home, it became very clear to me, during my visits there, that something urgently needs to be done to get rid of the pests. Unfortunately, we humans are very good at destroying places and making life hard for other species. But I also know we have the power and the resources to make changes which can significantly improve native wildlife populations.
New Zealand’s DOC is preparing a plan to eradicate pigs and cats from the Auckland Islands. I hope they get all the necessary funding to carry out a successful mission, helping to protect the biodiversity of this majestic place.
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