Friday, June 6, 2008

How much for the whale?

If you get into a boat in Kaikoura and head East for just a few minutes, you will go over the edge of a vertical cliff with a drop of about 800 meters. The drop leads down further to a canyon 1300m at its deepest point. Within easy sight of the shore, you are off the continental shelf and into deep ocean water. The combination of the deep canyon and the intersection of two opposing ocean currents in these waters, brings nutrient rich deep-water closer to the surface, creating an ecosystem all of its own. The krill and plankton attract the fish, the fish attract the squid, the squid attract the whales and the whales attract the tourists.

They used to attract the whaling industry of course, but in New Zealand that all came to an end at the end of the 1970s. Apart from the ecological considerations behind the decision to ban whaling in NZ waters, the economic results are interesting. Whales in Kaikoura are like the trees on Fraser Island in Queensland, in that they are worth more alive than dead. The tourist industry here in New Zealand isn't just about bungy jumping and tequila slamming. It's about hiking through nature reserves and observing wildlife in its natural context. Conservation-based tourism is big business. Just about every reserve or animal encounter we have seen on the South Island is in private hands, and in each case the result of tourism is increased stocks and greater understanding of the creatures in question. The inclusion of wildlife in the global money-go-round seems to be working to the mutual benefit of economy and ecology alike. Economic pressures tend to operate in favour of conservation at the moment, but what happens in the case of a downturn?

Take the yellow-eyed penguins we saw on the Otago Peninsula. They are the rarest penguins in the world and their fate is now inextricably linked to the bottom line in the privately-owned Penguin Parade, and by extension to the global human economy. In this case, Penguin Parade isn't just an organization that brings you to see the animals in their natural environment, they are the animals' landlords. They own the patch of land that is the Yellow-Eyed Penguins' remaining breeding colony. Any number of international conservation charities would happily contribute towards the stabilization of Yellow-Eyed Penguin numbers, but Penguin Parade prefers NOT to take their money in order to continue running the business as they see fit. To be fair, they put their money into replanting the tree and shrub cover whose loss originally led to the dwindling number of this rarest of penguins. But if Penguin Parade ever goes out of business (perhaps tourist numbers will drop in the future thanks to increasing costs in flying?) then the penguins are on their own again. Or worse - evicted from their only remaining habitat in order for that land to realise a greater economic value. Many want to see the environmental cost of flying reflected in the cost of airfares. But economies can be as complicated as ecologies, and one side-effect of this move might be the collapse of global wildlife-based tourism, with consequent collapses in conservation efforts. I have no idea of course - I'm just speculating.

But I wasn't thinking any of these things on Thursday morning as we motored out of South Bay, and off the edge of the continental shelf, with the privately-owned Kaikoura Whalewatching company. All I was interested in was seeing some whales, and I got what I wanted. In two hours on the water we had three close encounters with Sperm Whales. The way we used to find them was the same hunting technique as formerly used by whalers. These mammals are deep divers, resting at the surface to breathe for 10-15 minutes, re-oxygenating their muscles, before diving for 30-40 minutes. They announced ithemselves with 2-meter spumes from their blowholes, giving us time to race over to them to watch their heads and torsos bob above the surface for a short while. Then finally, as they began their next dive, they lifted their powerful tails gracefully above the waterline, sinking out of sight and leaving a growing circle of flat water known as the whale's footprint.

When we drive along a coast road, we mistake the sea for its surface, and consider the waves and swell to be all there is. For the Sperm Whale, the surface is the place where it spends the least time, the place where it comes by necessity rather than choice. It's nothing more than a filling station. A necessary but inconvenient stop to fuel its deeper activities. It is also the interface where man and whale interact, where the whale becomes an agent in the human economy. I hope that its market as a target for the camera-shutter rather than the harpoon remains viable.

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