Every year from July to October, majestic Humpback whales enter Cook Islands territory in search of warmer waters for mating and the birthing of their calves. These huge mammals are recognised in Maori tradition not just for their size, but also their spiritual significance. However, a growing whale tourism industry is putting the wellbeing of these animals at risk.
“The whales are really the equivalent of saints” says local artist Mike Tavioni.
The 72-year-old has a special connection with whales and his family regards Ka’ukura – a particular humpback whale – as one of their taura atua, or connection to the divine being.
“For my family, our taura atua is Iti Manuka which is a shark, the other one is Ka’ukura which is a whale” Tavioni says.
His family have long acknowledged the significance of the whales and other taura atua, which he says have the mana to help people in times of need, especially in the ocean.
“In times of trouble, usually in the ocean, we say a karakia (prayer) if we need help and bless it to the taura atua – either Ka'ukura the whale or Iti Manuka the shark. In the original times, they were people … But their manifestation when they appear to help – Ka'ukura is a whale and Iti Manuka is a shark.”
The story of a woman from Atiu being rescued by a taura atua is a popular tale in Cook Islands folklore. The story goes that whilst on the Goldfinch, a rotten wooden boat belonging to the Strickland family from Tauranga, the woman was thrown overboard when the boat disintegrated during a storm on its way to Atiu.
The lady called out to Iti Manuka for help whilst struggling in the ocean. The shark came and she tied both her and her brother in a pareu and wrapped it around the shark’s fin. They washed up on the shores of Mangaia and were taken to safety. Eventually, she moved to Rarotonga, where she would see out her remaining years.
Tavioni says: “She used to live down the road when my father was a young boy.”
It is not just locals who are enchanted by the whales either. Every year, scores of tourists travel to Rarotonga for a chance to get up close and personal with some of the world's largest mammals. In 2009, the global whale-watching industry was estimated to be worth just over $3 billion. It was estimated that whale tourism would add more than $600 million and 5,700 jobs to the global economy every year.
“They are such special creatures, it’s amazing to be able to see them in their natural habitat” says Tori Munyard, who saw whales for the first time just last week.
“We were fortunate enough to see whales jumping out of the water, splashing their tails and slapping their fins. It was magical. I would quite happily pay to get the chance to be up close and personal with them.”
Research carried out in 2004 estimated the whale-watching industry was one of the fastest-growing in New Zealand, with just over 425,000 people paying for a chance to get close to the mammals. In New Zealand alone, whale-watching brought in close to $120 million of revenue in a single year.
Many countries around the world offer whale-watching experiences, with places such as Tonga and even here in Rarotonga allowing people to swim with whales. However, there has been much debate around the impact whale tourism is having on the creatures.
A recent Auckland University of Technology study found that swim-with-whales tours in northern Tonga were disrupting the natural behaviour of humpback whales. Research to date has focused solely on population, not on the impact on individual whales, associate professor at Massey University and director of its Coastal-Marine Research Group Karen Stockin says.
Talking about New Zealand’s whale tourism industry, Stockin says: “While we don't offer swimming, we still have a significant whale watching industry, which needs to be monitored as there are some notable impacts.”
A New Zealand Department of Conservation study published in 2003 on the effects of whale watching tours on sperm whales in the South Island, found that tour vessels affected whale behaviour “significantly”.
Study authors concluded that whale-watching operations at the time did “not influence the behaviour of sperm whales in a manner which seem to indicate severe disturbance or harassment”. However, they acknowledged that very little was still known about the whales and said further development of the whale-watching industry should be “cautious”.
The authors also noted that a three-year study of whales cannot be considered conclusive, when the giant mammals live at least 60 years. “It is thus impossible to assess long-term changes.”
Authors recommended further research be carried out, saying a “monitoring scheme should be put in place in cooperation with the whale watching companies. Whale reactions should be observed on a regular basis, using recognised methods. This would facilitate detection of changes in behavioural patterns in time for management to respond appropriately. While the scheme should be designed and set up in cooperation with the industry, it should be operated independently.”
While most local whale tourism operators here in the Cook Islands are generally respectful of the whales, some say a few inconsiderate operators are ruining it for others.
One operator, who does not wish to be named, says: “I was out with a group last year. We were parked up at a safe distance from the whales with our engines idling, so we would not disturb them as they passed us.
“Next minute, another boat comes hooning past, stops between us and the whales, and sends people overboard to jump in the water and start harassing them. We couldn’t see anything, and the whales just swam away from everyone.”
In New Zealand, regulations state there should be no more than three vessels and/or aircraft within 300 metres of any marine mammal. Boaties and tour boat operators must approach whales and dolphins from behind or to the side and travel no faster than idle or “no wake speed” within 300 metres of marine mammals.
Boats must keep at least 50m from whales or 200m from mother whales and their calves. Swimming with whales is not permitted.
“Our country needs to follow suit if we are to sustainably grow our whale tourism industry here,” says the operator.