Thar she blows, now stop

Taranaki Daily News - - Front Page - BRIT­TANY BAKER

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.

PHO­TOS: GRANT MATTHEW/ STUFF

Gilly Thorpe, a Marine Mam­mal Ob­server from Taranaki.

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