Social Media Helps Scientists Monitor Rarely Sighted Whales

Social media posts helped scientists to monitor
one of Aotearoa’s rarest whale species, the infrequently
sighted southern right whale, or

Photographs shared by members of the
public, via Facebook and nature-watching network
iNaturalist, helped scientists assess how the species is
faring around the Aotearoa New Zealand

Carried out in cooperation with the
Department of Conservation and published in the journal
Ocean and Coastal Management, the study
reveals that southern right whales are slower than expected
at re-establishing a habitat in mainland waters.

research was led by Annabelle Cranswick, a masters student
in the Faculty of Science at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University
of Auckland.

Sightings of the whale rose between 2003
and 2010, but the increase wasn’t sustained over the past
decade, Cranswick found. That’s despite some high-profile
incidents such as the appearance of Matariki, the southern
right whale which captured the nation’s heart while
lingering in Wellington Harbour in 2018.

possibility is that the species’ knowledge of mainland
wintering grounds was lost when numbers crashed because of

“Photos supplied on social media and by
citizen scientists are proving so important for us to
monitor populations of these recovering whales,” says
Cranswick. “We can assess that yes, this is a southern
right whale, and discover how long a whale stayed in a
particular area.

“Even a distant photo, showing just
part of a whale, can be helpful,” says Cranswick. “We
can pick a southern right from just the white patches called
callosities on the head, their flat back which lacks a
dorsal fin, or even their large paddle-shaped pectoral

Information on population demographics aids
conservation efforts.

Facebook and iNaturalist photos
supplemented a Department of Conservation – Te Papa
Atawhai database that largely relies on citizen
scientists’ whale sightings. Scientists focused on 116
sightings over 11 years (2011–2021) in the waters around
mainland New Zealand, including the North (Te Ika a Māui),
South (Te Waipounamu), and Stewart (Rakiura)

“We went through ten years of social media
data to extract these sighting reports,” says Hannah
Hendriks, a marine biologist with the Department of
Conservation. “There are very few whale researchers and
rangers scattered across the country, so we rely on the
public to be our eyes and ears.”

Bobby Phuong, a
postie in Christchurch who’s an enthusiastic amateur
wildlife photographer, shot one of the images to feature in
the study. He drove for nearly an hour to see a whale and
calf at Sumner in August last year, sharing his photos via

“They were remarkable to witness and I’m
glad my photos have helped in some way,” he says.

Gisborne, Wainui Beach resident Ian Ruru captured images of
a southern right whale frolicking in the waves, metres away
from surfers, in September 2018. “She sat directly in
front of our home for eight hours that day… I guess she
wanted her story to be told… Paikea we called her,” says

A note to would-be citizen-scientists:
Photographers must stay 50m from adult whales and 200m from
whales with calves.

Southern right whales were hunted
to near extinction, with global numbers falling to as low as
500. By 2009, an estimated 2,200 of the whales were in New
Zealand waters, moving between the sub-Antarctic Auckland
Islands (Maungahuka) and Campbell Island (Motu Ihupuku), and
occasionally being found around mainland New Zealand
including Stewart Island (Rakiura). Numbers are slowly

“Social media provided detailed
information from areas with lots of people and lots of
cameras,” says Dr Emma Carroll, of Waipapa Taumata Rau,
University of Auckland, who is a co-author of the

“Where there are fewer people, like the west
coast of Te Waipounamu (the South Island), information from
the public and Department of Conservation rangers recorded
in the national database was more

Because southern right whales come close
to shore, many photos were from clifftops or even the beach.
Southern right whales remain such a rarity around the New
Zealand mainland that it’s possible there will be only a
single sighting in a

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