Photographer Richard Sidey takes a trip to the South Pacific to see the elusive whales of Niue
The blanket of stars glistened in the eggplant-coloured sky. It was an unforgettable sight, but I was soon to learn that this would be just one of the magical moments that I would experience on Niue, a tropical island in the middle of the South Pacific, for the islanders were about to receive their most important visitors, pods of humpback whales who would return to the warm waters to rest and give birth.
In 2003, Niue declared its waters a National Whale Sanctuary, which gave rise to the island’s own non-profit charity Oma Tafuā (‘to treasure the whales’). I was here to join Oma Tafuā and Conservation International who were in Niue to help better understand these endangered creatures so that they can be protected for the future.
The next morning we set sail on a catamaran with spinner dolphins leaping in front of the bow of the boat. Conservation International scientist and researcher Olive Andrews stood on the fly bridge scanning the horizon for distant blows in the large swells that wrap around the island’s coral cliffs. Andrews helped develop the guidelines for whale watching in Niue, to make sure that visitors to the island could enjoy what we were seeing today, but without upsetting the animals.
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The team spotted a humpback whale ahead of us, but this time the large tail lob that the whale treated us to told us he wasn’t in the mood for any close encounters. Immediately Andrews signaled the captain to shut down the engines while she dropped her hydrophone into the water. Donning headphones she listened intently to the sounds of the ocean. She smiled and said: “There’s our singer,” whilst pressing record on her handheld device.

“All of the males at each breeding ground sing the same song, yet every year the song is different,” said Andrews. “Male humpback whales sing a complex, culturally transmitted song, for mate selection, but research suggests that singing males also attract other males. In this way, the song is learned and transmitted across the entire Pacific Ocean basin, originating on the east coast of Australia and moving eastward over time.” Scientists use these songs to calculate where whales are coming from and identify different breeding locations — important information when determining how to better conserve this species.

Andrews passes the headphones around the team. It is impossible not to smile when you see everyone’s reactions to hearing whale songs performed in real time. The haunting underwater soundtrack is utterly compelling and overwhelmingly beautiful.

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Over the next few days we find mothers with first year calves. This is a sensitive time, so we keep our distance. I launch our drone to unobtrusively observe them from the air. From a birds-eye perspective we can observe their behaviour and gauge the size and health of the individual animals. When I was filming one particular calf, I noticed that while it stayed within a fin’s reach of its mother it seemed delightfully unaware of the drone I was using to capture footage for the team. As the drone drew nearer the calf lazily rolled over and sunned itself on its back.

While we were able to use the drones to survey the animals' behaviour, it was proving more difficult to deploy satellite tags on the animals, which would provide valuable data for the team so they could see which route the mammals took on their 7,000 kilometre journey to Antarctica.

Jake Levenson, a marine biologist from the US Department of Interior who is a satellite tagging specialist for Conservation International, was having difficulty tagging these elusive creatures. We needed to get close to them to be able to deploy a tag, but the exposed seas and the elusive whales meant that this task was nigh on impossible. The closest attempt resulted in missing the whale and a USD$2,200 tag sinking into the depths of the ocean.

However, the audio and visual we did record, meant that we could add individual tail fluke IDs to the growing Niuean catalogue of whales. Providing effective conservation is crucial to ensuring these highly intelligent giants of the sea endure. This work contributes to the design and management of Niue's large scale marine protected area and National Whale Sanctuary. We hope to return soon to the crystal clear waters of Niue and continue the research on these incredible creatures.

Follow Richard Sidey at @richardsidey

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