Thar she blows, now stop
Gilly Thorpe has the power to stop 6866 tonnes of ship in its tracks.
The marine mammal observer aboard the world’s biggest seismic survey vessel, Amazon Warrior, spends weeks at sea scanning the waters for whales and dolphins.
When she sees one she orders for the press of a button and the seismic tests are halted.
The whale or dolphin would have a look around and leave, she said, and only then could operations restart.
But Thorpe added it could take two hours to get up to full-steam again.
‘‘And then they can u-turn and we have to stop again.
‘‘It could be just one family being nosy. They’re real curious.’’
Though Thorpe has seen just one whale during her time on the vessel, data collected from teams of observers aboard the ship have seen a total of 156 groups of whales and dolphins in 10 weeks to February 4 between between New Caledonia and Taranaki waters - 142 of these sightings were off the Taranaki coast.
Thorpe is one of two to three observers on board in conjunction with two passive acoustic monitors, who listen for sounds and watch sonar screens below deck.
The observers are government mandated to be on board during seismic surveys such as the Amazon Warrior, which is currently carrying out testing off the Taranaki coast.
Not without controversy, some believe the seismic activity is detrimental to marine mammals, while others say it has little impact.
On February 1, Climate Justice Taranaki spokesperson Emily Bailey claimed the ship had been forced to stop 28 times in the 42 preceding days because of whales and dolphins.
‘‘That’s threatened or endangered species in harm’s way almost every day in OMV and Schlumberger’s irresponsible pursuit of oil. On top of this, sea level temperatures were up six degrees in the area this summer, from fossil fuelled climate change’’.
But Thorpe, who is of Taranaki iwi, Nga¯ti Mutunga, and Nga¯ti Toa, said sea animals were more clever than people gave them credit for.
‘‘They’re not silly; they’re very clever.
‘‘They’re not silly; they’re very clever. They mostly stay away from us.’’
They mostly stay away from us,’’ she said.
Looking for whales, dolphins and seals more than 4.8 kilometres out takes a lot of practice as there are no special tricks, she said.
Time of year, sea conditions and distance from the coast were all factors in what sea creatures would be around.
‘‘Just because it’s a certain season doesn’t mean that they’re there.
‘‘Sometimes you’ll see a blow – Moby Dick.’’
And with the touch of a button, Thorpe said the seismic tests were halted.
The Department of Conservation’s marine mammal sighting data shows in the 14 years to 2016, there were 145 sightings of blue whales and a total of 336 whales seen.
About the same number of humpback whales have been seen in 46 years, while about half that number of southern right whales have been spotted in 26 years.
Gilly Thorpe, a Marine Mammal Observer from Taranaki.