Right Whales Return to New Zealand After a Century

Photo: Edith Schreurs / cc

Southern right whales were once a common sight along the coast of New Zealand, though in the 19th century overhunting brought the species to the brink of extinction. But now, after a decades of being virtually non-existant off New Zealand's shores, wildlife experts are seeing endangered right whales finally returning to their ancestral calving grounds -- offering hope that the whales' are rediscovering a 'cultural connection' to this region after a century-long hiatus.Before they were brought to near-extinction by whalers who considered them to be the best whale species to target -- hence the 'right' in their name -- southern right whales are thought to have numbered in the tens-of-thousands in the waters off New Zealand. In the decades that followed, however, the few surviving whales limited their calving grounds to the sub-antarctic regions to the south, despite the fact that closer to the New Zealand mainland had ancestrally been where they raised their young.

But recently a team of researchers from the University of Auckland and New Zealand Department of Conservation made a remarkable discovery; right whales seemed to be heading home.

"With the increase in numbers observed around the Auckland Islands over the last decade, we think that some individuals are re-discovering the former primary habitat around the mainland of New Zealand," researcher Scott Baker tells The New Zealand Herald.

According to PhD student Emma Carroll, the study's lead author, overhunting in centuries past may have done more than nearly wipe the whales out -- it placed their regional heritage in jeopardy as well. Through a process Carroll calls 'maternal fidelity', mother whales instill calves with knowledge of the pod's native calving grounds.

From The New Zealand Herald:

"This maternal fidelity contributed to the vulnerability of these local populations, which were quickly hunted to extinction using only open boats and hand-held harpoons," Ms Carroll said.

This heritage seemed to have been lost when right whales around mainland New Zealand were wiped out, which slowed the return of whales to their former habitat.

Researchers are hoping that the whales' return to their ancestral calving grounds near New Zealand signals a brighter future for the endangered species -- and that soon many more southern right whales will follow suite. After all, attitudes towards protecting wildlife have changed dramatically in the hundred years since the whales were last seen in the region; perhaps this time we can make it right.

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More on Right Whales
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Tags: Endangered Species | New Zealand | Whales

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