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The humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, have been cruising past from their tropical breeding grounds in Niue, Tonga, and New Caledonia to antarctic feeding grounds. This means that many whales are mums with a calf in tow and for some reason these whales all converge on Raoul before heading south.

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This also presented a massive opportunity for biologists throughout the pacific to learn more about these elusive giants, and so for the past weeks we have had the good vessel Braveheart up here with a crew led by Dr Rochelle Constantine conducting a major research operation: The Great Humpback Whale Trail. You can read about their activity here: http://kermadec.aucklandmuseum.com/about-expedition/2015-the-great-humpback-whale-trail/

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I have loved seeing the huge whales leading the playful calves. Watching them launch into the air, twisting and taking the world in from a new perspective, I get a sense of their difficult lives punctuated with moments of joy. By the time the mothers reach Raoul, they have not eaten for half a year, and yet they sing to each other and play in the bays. I will never get tired of the whales.

thank you Di for the photo 🙂

An extended solo trip searching for humpbacks around the coast

DSC_0814A few weeks ago I thought I’d take some days off ranging and go walking around the island visiting each hut on the way and seeing if I could glimpse the first whales of the season. First stop was Boat Cove hut on the east of Raoul Island, which has incredible skylight and sits atop steep cliffs that plummet straight to the volcanic shoreline. This was during mid July, and the air temperature was down to a fiercely mild 12 degrees, which is almost as cold as it ever gets up here. Of course we have all acclimatized and so it feels freezing to us. I took the camera out to the wonderful campground on Wilson’s point hoping for a humpback to be passing by with calf, but instead was treated to the colony of Masked Boobies (Sula dactylatra) from the Meyer’s feeding en masse. Copy - DSC_0997Spying the bright fish glittering in the sunlight each bird lines up a bombing run and then dives with a splash under the swells, using their momentum to make high speed twists underwater to hunt their prey. Copy - DSC_0998Hundreds of birds were taking part and I watched them into the afternoon until it was getting on and time was running out to make the next hut before nightfall. Taking the inland route over Moumoukai I made my away across ridges and under a cruel number of fallen trees to the fork that leads either to Mahoe hut or down into Denham Bay. I had planned to stay at Mahoe but the weather was fine and I could count on a little more sunlight in the evening so I dropped my pack at the fork and ran to Mahoe hut just for a change of pace and a hot cup of coffee. Then I had to call in to base on the VHF radio and notify them that I was beginning the roped descent into Denham Bay itself, and that I would notify them once I was safely down. The path over Moumoukai had been far longer and more twisted than I had imagined, and so when I finally arrived at the shore of Denham Bay it was well into a sunset that painted everything; trees, pebbles, cliff, in a velvet glow. DSC_0088_01Now only the ascent to Hutchies hut to the west remained, but seeing as it was supposed to be a holiday from my usual work of tramping through the thick jungle I instead settled in for a couple of days of extraordinary solitude and polished off Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – whose characters were experiencing something totally opposite to myself. Returning to base I still hadn’t seen the whale I had wished for. It was wonderful then, sitting on the deck drinking tea with Nate, that one should cruise by in front of the house and breach right where we could see it. Amazing. I have been told that thousands of humpbacks and dolphins will be passing us on their migration down to the Antarctic in the next two months, and that usually people just get used to seeing them, and even stop really noticing them as you do the trees and clouds.

Copy - DSC_0023Kermadec petrel, Pterodroma neglecta.

These birds are currently breeding on the island and out at the Meyer’s (where this photo was taken).
Being extremely clumsy on the ground, on take off, and in landing (they seem to literally just fall into a shrub to land) they are beautiful in flight. We spent a calm day out amidst their nests and burrows, removing invasive plants that had made it over there in the past.

There are many pairs sitting on rocky nests incubating a single egg in shifts. Kermadec petrels are monogamous and lay a single egg each year, which will take about four months to grow into an adult bird that can feed itself from the surrounding waters.

Lucky enough to get some snorkeling in on the day as well and ended up schooling with a swarm of over a thousand Kahawai for fifteen minutes. When I dived into them they would calmly part to let me into the middle, and then close around me, so I was surrounded. They seemed curious and would cruise close for a look. Very lucky day!

DSC_0048A representation of time. The biggest boulders are incredibly hard volcanic rock, taking millenia to grind down into pebbles. The white pummice is soft and brittle, taking mere decades. The yellow pebbles are stiff lining foam from a shipping container washed up onto lava point out of the east, reduced to pummice size in a few years before becoming artificial sand. DSC_0057

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The DoC ship Hauturu made it up to Raoul Island to resupply us!
It was a pretty awesome achievement considering that the Hauturu is a small vessel (80 tonnes vs the 1600 tonne frigate that bought us up in March…) but the crew managed to hit a calm weather window and as a result we finally have our food. Omelets for breakfast, with fresh apple muffins and spirulina smoothies to celebrate.

The food was originally supposed to be brought up with us by the Navy, but then they changed their minds, so the Airforce decided to air drop it. Unfortunately they changed their minds as well, so for a few months we were without our intended supplies. Unfortunately this has become a pattern with the armed forces, with routine resupplies ever harder to secure.

The ability of the Hauturu to come up here and get the job done is fantastic for the program, because it means we won’t have to be entirely reliant on the armed forces in the future. Takes plenty of guts, imagine sailing for 4 days through the center of the Pacific Ocean in a boat that size… Legends!