Encountering southern right whale dolphins
Toby Dickson is a photographer and aspiring marine scientist currently undertaking an MSc in marine science at the University of Otago in Dunedin. He studies sperm whales in Kaikoura using UAVs. This is where most of his wildlife encounters happen. He is deeply passionate about the marine environment and ocean conservation.
Sitting on the side of our six-metre research vessel ‘Grampus’ positioned a few miles off the coast of Kaikōura, we were looking for sperm whales. Kaikōura, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a marine life mecca due to a the narrow continental shelf with a steep gradient which forms the Kaikōura Canyon, dropping to a depth of 1,000m just 5km from the coast. It has been described as the most productive non-chemosynthetic deep sea habitat on the planet, and is a favoured foraging ground for many marine mammals.
Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) are common in this area, and are inquisitive, playful and regularly approach boats to bow ride. Most days we are out on the water we tend to see them, often in large groups. This day, we had around 20 dusky dolphins cruising around the vessel, when suddenly four dolphins shot past underneath the boat, much faster than the duskies. These were Lissodelphis peronii, the southern sub-species of the right whale dolphin. These are oceanic, offshore cetaceans found in the circumpolar sub-Antarctic and cool temperate waters in the Southern Ocean, associated with oceanic deep waters, and highly productive continental shelves. The species is seen occasionally off the coast of New Zealand, and has been known to associate with dusky dolphins, as well as pilot whales. Sightings are typically quick glimpses as they speed by, or a fast paced encounter with a pod on the move. The only other time I have seen them was a few years ago, when they breached a few times before disappearing again.
Along with right whales, southern right whale dolphins lack a dorsal fin. Their sleek, tapered body shape allows them to move swiftly through the water, and they are usually boat shy, keeping their distance. Instantly I recognised their striking black and white coloration. They made several close approaches, swimming underneath the vessel, turning on their side and eyeing us up along with the duskies at close range. I stumbled over to the stern in a rush to grab my camera in its underwater housing, hoping they might pass by a few more times. We watched in awe – they seemed almost relaxed in our presence, lobtailing, breaching onto their sides and socialising with the dusky dolphins. There appeared to be only four individuals in the group, a rarity in itself as they are known to travel in pods of up to 1,000, with 53 being the average pod size. I watched from the bow, hoping they might return for a few more looks at the vessel. To my surprise they made several more passes, unphased by me leaning over the side with my camera.
Standing back up on deck I was exhilarated to have had another encounter with these elusive creatures, let alone take some photographs of them in their underwater domain. To my knowledge these are the first underwater photographs of the southern species of the right whale dolphin. Very little information on these dolphins exists, known mostly from chance encounters and strandings. They are known to congregate off Namibia, Chile and New Zealand, but no global population size estimate for this species yet exists. Migration, reproduction, communication and human impacts are largely unknown for Lissodelphis. I find it fascinating that in an age where we humans are able to go almost anywhere on the planet, there remains large mammals like these that are still such a mystery. I am grateful for the encounter, and hope to see these beautiful creatures again.
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