Rarotonga’s Mesmerising & Magical Humpback Whales

whale in the cook islands

Whales have always been central to the legends of the Cook Islands, as it is believed that our ancient voyager ancestors came to these islands-guided by Whales. Today, Whales continue to be revered by the Cook Island people, and are protected throughout the world’s largest marine park, the Marae Moana (sacred place of beauty) established within Cook Island waters.

This marine park currently consists of a massive 1 million square kilometers of Pacific Ocean, with plans currently underway to double its’ size.

The Cook Islands, and in particular Rarotonga, feature on the travel itinerary for the world’s last critically endangered Humpback Whale migratory population. There are regrettably less than 60,000 Humpback Whales left in the Southern Hemisphere. This number is comprised of nine migratory populations, and one non-migratory population in the Arabian Sea. The ‘Cook Islands’ Oceania migratory population comprises of a mere 3,000 – 3,500 individuals.

These Whales herald all the way from Antarctica, and travel through the South Pacific Region – arriving in Cook Island waters from July through to October each year.

One of the reasons that our migratory population is so small, is because of illegal Soviet Whaling that was carriedout between 1947 and 1973. (26 years). In the Southern Hemisphere alone, almost 100,000 whales were secretly killed by the U.S.S.R., and not reported to the IWC (Yalokov et al, 1998; Clapham and Baker, 2002). Of this total, some 46,000 were Humpback Whales. During this same period, Soviet catches of Humpback Whales were carried out by 4 floating factory fleets. Although the total catch during this period was 48,702 Humpbacks, only 2,710 of these catches were actually reported to the IWC In the past, Whales (as a species) have satisfied mankind’s hunger for red meat, illuminated the streets of Europe and warmed the homes of countless families.

humpback whales cook islands

Today we are now learning that they have always made far greater contributions than we could have possibly imagined – inparticular they have contributed to the health of our oceans, and moreover they contribute to the very survival of all living things (see further).

In modern times, it is becoming evident that Whales (of all types), also have the ability to emancipate the spirit of mankind – by bringing us back to a placeof extreme emotional happiness. This is abundantly clear by the reaction of people who have been fortunate enough to view these magical creatures in their natural environment. These experiences have been referred to as ‘Life Changing’, ‘Spiritual awakenings’, ‘Humbling’, ‘Emotionally charged’ (in a positive way), ‘Joyful’, ‘Calming’, ‘Inspirational’ and always ….‘Unforgettable’.

The level of Tourism to Rarotonga has increased exponentially over the last 5 years, and so too has there been an awakening as to not only the value of our Whales as a massive draw-card for tourists; but also, the realization that both humans and Whales are at risk during the Whale Season. This is due to the fact that best practice protocols are currently not backed up by legislation.

Although a set of rules and regulations wasintroduced by the world- famous cetacean scientist, Nan Hauser, who has lived on Rarotonga for the last 19 years and studied our visiting Humpback Whales: attempts to formalise legislation to enforce compliance, and moreover to establish best practice protocols, has made extremely slow progress. Nan Hauser is also the founder and CEO of the Cook Islands Whale Research Centre.

“Both Whales and Humans continue to be unnecessarily at risk” says Nan, “…and without these best practice protocols being adopted by all vessels operating within close proximity to the Whales, these beautiful and majestic creatures continue to be at risk (and have already sustained) injuries from fast travelling boats coming in too close: in particular, to the mothers and their newly born calves.

Tourists too will also continue to be at risk, with the potential of a tragic accident occurring – being an unfortunate reality” she adds.

The best practice protocols that Nan is referring to in particular, are as follows:

  • No vessel (other than a scientificresearch vessel) to come within 300m of a mother and calf.
  • Drones (flying camera devices) may notfly lower than 300m above, or closer horizontally, to a mother and calf.
  • No Vessel (other than a scientific research vessel) to come within 100m of ‘other’ whales.
  • Drones may not fly lower than 100m above, or closer horizontally, to other Whale individuals.
  • The speed of all vessels within 10 kms of Rarotonga’s shores / reef, to be limited during the Whale Season. (such speed asyet to be agreed by to by the commercial operators as well as the Whale Research Centre) As the Humpback Whales are circa 1000 times larger than the average adult human being, keeping distances like this, and providing these Whales with a humane and ethical ‘comfort zone’ during their breeding season – should not inhibit our Tourist’s ability to still have excellent viewing opportunities’ says Nan.

To be able to support the seemingly outrageous claims that Whales contribute to the health of our oceans, as well as to the very survival of all living things: to follow is some interesting information to assist in our understanding these magnificent ceatures. Such information has been derived from snippets of a recent interview with Nan Hauser, shortly after the spectacular ‘Whale of an Event 2016’ fundraiser, initiated and sponsored by the Crown Beach Resort on behalf of the Cook Islands Whale Research Center, in October, 2016.

How is it possible that Whales can affect the health of the Oceans?

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century, has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain, and tumbles all the way down to the bottom

We all know that Whales eat fish and krill, and some people – certain politicians in Japan for an example – have argued that killing Whales would be good for human beings, as it would boost the food available for us to eat. However, as Whales declined, so did the numbers of fish and krill. It seems counter-intuitive: surely their numbers would rise as their major predators disappeared? But now it turns out that Whales not only eat these creatures, but they also keep them alive.

In fact, they help sustain the entire living system of the oceans. Whales feed at depth, in waters that are often pitch dark. Then they return to the surface: to the photic zone, where there’s enough light for photosynthesis to take place. There, they release what biologists call fecal plumes: vast outpourings of poo: ‘poonamis…’. These plumes are rich in iron and nitrogen, nutrients which are often very scarce in the surface waters. All these nutrients fertilize the plant plankton that lives in the only place where plants can survive…. the photic zone.

Fertilizing the surface waters is not the only thing that Whales do. By plunging up and down through the water column, they also keep kicking plankton back up into the photic zone, giving it more time to reproduce, before it sinks into the abyss….

Even today, though Whale populations have been greatly reduced, the vertical mixing of water caused by movements of these mammals up and down through the column of the ocean is, astonishingly, roughly the same as the amount of mixing caused by the world’s wind, waves and tides. More plant plankton, means more animal plankton, on which larger creatures then feed. In other words, more Whales means more fish and krill.

But the story doesn’t end here, because plant plankton not only feeds the animals of the sea; it also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere…. When, eventually, it sinks to the ocean floor, it takes this carbon out of circulation, down to a place where it remains for many thousands of years. The more Whales there are, the more plankton there is. The more plankton there is, the more carbon is drawn out of the air.

When Whales were at their historic populations, before their numbers were reduced, it seems that Whales might have been responsible for removing tens of millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Whales change climate. The return of the great Whales, if they were to be allowed to recover, could be seen as a benign form of geo-engineering. It could undo some of the damage we have done, both to the living systems of the sea, and to the atmosphere.

whales swimming in rarotonga

Q: Do Whales give birth to twins? If so, how prevalent is this?

Yes, a Humpback Whale mother can have twin calves, but it is a very rare event, occurring about 0.39 percent of all pregnancies.

Q: Do you have an estimate of what percentage of Whale calves make it back to Antarctic? As this may assist us all in being able to estimate just how long it will take for the Cook Islands Oceania migratory population to recover their numbers.

Regrettably, there is currently not a chance in the world anyone knows this.

Q: How are Whales able to produce sounds / song without expelling air like humans do?

They reverberate air. Baleen Whales do not have a phonic lip structure. Instead they have a larynx that plays a role in sound production, but it lacks vocal cords.We’re not sure exactly how they produce these sounds. The process, however, cannot be completely analogous to humans,because Whales do not have to exhale in order to produce sound. It is likely that they recycle air around the body for this purpose. Cranial sinuses may also be used to create the sounds.

Q: We know that male Whales have the ability to ‘sing’. Do female Whales make sounds? If not – are we to presume that they do not communicate with other individuals of their species through sound but perhaps via telepathy / other dimensions?

Actually female Whales do vocalise to other members of their species. They don’t ‘sing’ actual songs like the males do, but they can be quite vocal with other Whales, and especially their calves.

Q: All humans can appreciate their environment on a 3-dimensional level, and it is believed that gifted humans can appreciate their surroundings via up to 5 dimensions. How many dimensions do we currently believe Whales have command of?

All we know is that they are far beyond our ability to use the dimensions that we are limited to, however, we still have no idea how many dimensions they have command over.

Q: Based on our knowledge of a Whales muscle structure, and knowing that in the average lifetime of a Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale they are capable of travelling to the moon and back, three time!!: would it be reasonable to deduce that their physical muscle mass is insufficient to be able to swim the distances they do – without employing energy / force from alternative power sources in the ocean? i.e. currents, gravity or perhaps the pull of the moon.

We don’t know this for sure, but it seems that the things that you mentioned must be an energy source.

Q: What is the average lifespan of Humpback Whales?

Circa 80 years.

Q: Why do we think Whales Breach? Do they do this all the time, or only during mating season?

All the time. They breach for many reasons! Competition, play, removing parasites, socializing, courting or warning others in their group of danger

Q: We know this is rather a naughty question, but us locals on the Island are acutely aware of the fact that these Whales come here to breed and give birth. Our fishermen also often see evidence of copious quantities of Whale sperm floating on top of the water after sexual activity….so our menfolk are curious as to the average size / weight of a Humpback’s testes…?

(Giggling….) Not too sure about Humpback Whales, but with Right Whales they weigh 1 ton, and with Blue Whales we are talking about 5 tons…

Q: Do whales see in colour? Humans have evolved over time to be able to see colour…is this the case with Whales? and do their young only see in black and white – like human babies do during the first few months?

They do have similar cone and rod cells in their eyes like humans do, and what I can say for sure is that dolphins most certainly see in colour….as colour is just a vibration. Dolphins show a preference to bright colours. To date there seems no evidence to support that this is also the case with Whales.

Q: How many lungs do Whales have? As they can stay underwater for such long periods. Do they process oxygen like humans do?

To assist with long dives, whales have developed special lungs that help them inhale additional oxygen, and transfer it to enlarged blood vessels, where it can be used by the body.

Q: How many stomachs do Whales have? And if only 1 – do they derive nutrition from their food like humans do?

From the book ‘Whales ‘by E.J. Slijper; it is said that the stomach of a Cetacean (whales and dolphins) consists of 3 main compartments. Whales have a similar stomach make up to that of cattle, deer or sheep. Some Beaked Whales that I have necropsied (dissected) have had between 11 and 13 stomachs.

The migratory Humpback Whales that grace the tropical-blue South Pacific Ocean that embraces the Cook Islands, are far too valuable to our Tourism Industry not to be protected by legislation. The potential loss of these Whales due to ignorance and / or commercial greed, would surely be a travesty for us all.

whale tail in the cook islands