Winter offers best whale and seal spotting

Keen on whale watching and seal spotting? There’s no better time than winter and New Zealand’s extensive coast offers endless opportunities.

Keen on whale-watching and seal-spotting? There''s no better time than winter and New Zealand''s extensive coast offers endless opportunities.

With 15,134 kilometres of coastline and one of the most diverse collections of marine life in the world, spotting mammals like whales and seals is especially likely at this time of the year.

But the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) says that as well as winter being a good time to view, it’s also a time to appeal to members of the public for help in caring for marine mammals.

Information on sightings is helpful for monitoring programmes but knowing how to behave around the special creatures is also very important.

Seal behaviour
Seals come ashore to rest at this time of the year and DOC’s Gisborne Programme Manager, Jamie Quirk says the best thing people can do in most cases, is leave the animals alone.

"It is perfectly normal to see seals on local beaches over winter. Unless there is good reason to think a seal needs help, we prefer to leave them in peace. They can survive major injuries if they are in good condition and disturbing them can do more harm than good," says Mr Quirk.

Seals have sharp teeth, can bite in self defence and are capable of killing dogs. They can also carry infectious diseases that can be difficult to treat.

DOC advises people to be careful to keep at least 10 metres away from seals and not get between the animals and the sea. It’s also important to keep children and dogs away from seals.

Whale watching
Whales are also often seen close to shore at this time of year and DOC staff are keen to hear of any sightings of a particular species known as southern right whales (tohora).

"Southern right whales are nationally endangered. Over the last few years we have been collecting photographs and specimens from whales that come close to shore to give us a picture of how many animals there are in the New Zealand population," Mr Quirk said.

Southern right whale adults are on average 14.5 metres long and mostly black. They can be identified by the lack of a dorsal fin, a V-shaped blowhole spray and white growths on their heads called callosities. Each whale has a unique callosity or skin thickening pattern that allows researchers to identify individual animals.

Information on southern right whales or reports of seals that are sick or threatened should be made to the Department of Conservation.