Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary
Hauser and the Cook Islands Prime Minister, Dr. Woonton, receiving
the Gifts to the Earth Award from WWF for the sanctuary.
Hauser and good friend, Rawiri Paratene, who was the speaker
at the Gifts to the Earth event. Rawiri stars as the
grandfather in 'Whale Rider'.
Hauser and Phil Clapham
Islands Whale Research, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA
19 September 2001, the Government of the Cook Islands declared a whale
sanctuary in the territorial waters of that island state. Here, we present
a brief description of the Sanctuary, together with a list of cetacean
species known or believed to inhabit the region. We also summarize information
on ongoing research efforts aimed at marine mammals in the Sanctuary,
with particular focus on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).
Boundaries and area
Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary (CIWS) encompasses an area of approximately
one million nm2 and includes all of the territorial waters of the Cooks
(Figure 1). Latitudinally, the Cook Islands lie between approximately
7º S and the Tropic of Capricorn; the longitudinal boundaries of
the Cooks are between 156º and 167º W, with the Cooks lying
between French Polynesia to the east and Samoa and Niue to the west.
There are two major island groups, the Southern and Northern Cooks;
together, these comprise fifteen inhabited islands, the largest of which
Current whale sanctuaries across Oceania (not including Tokelau)
species in the sanctuary
is a considerable diversity of cetacean fauna within the CIWS. Species
which are known to exist in this area are summarized in
Table 1; other species whose presence in the region is likely based
upon unconfirmed observations, or on knowledge of their distribution
elsewhere in the South Pacific, are listed in Table
known to occur in the CIWS include four baleen whales and ten odontocetes.
The occurrence in the region of an additional two mysticetes and nine
odontocetes is considered likely.
whales utilize the waters of the CIWS during the austral winter. The
result of directed studies undertaken since 1998 indicate a consistent
seasonal presence in the region, from at least July to October (Hauser
et al. 2000, SC/54/O14). Observations of newborn calves, as well as
singing behavior and competitive groups, strongly indicate that the
waters of the CIWS are used by humpback whales for both calving and
upon the longitudinal position of the Cooks, it is likely that the humpback
whales found in the CIWS are part of the IWC Area VI management stock.
Discovery marks shot or recovered in nearby areas of the South Pacific
generally support the belief that this region should be considered part
of Area VI for management purposes (Mikhalev 2000). Individually identified
humpback whales observed in the Cooks have been matched to French Polynesia,
Niue and Tonga (Garrigue et al. 2002), indicating migratory connections
among these areas of Oceania.
The current status of humpback whales in the CIWS is not clear. It is
likely that this population has still not recovered from the overexploitation
to which it was subject in its high-latitude feeding grounds in the
Antarctic. Area V and Area VI humpback whales were greatly reduced by
whaling, including extensive illegal catches by the USSR (Yablokov et
al. 1998, Clapham and Baker 2001). In particular, almost 13,000 humpbacks
from these two areas were killed in the 1959/60 season alone (Mikhalev
2000). Observations from the Cooks and other areas of the South Pacific
indicate that recovery of this species has been slow throughout Oceania
(Garrigue et al. 2002).
Research in the CIWS
in the CIWS is currently focused on continued study of humpback whales,
on beaked whales, and on documentation of cetacean diversity in the
region. Some details of these two topics are given below.
long-term study of humpback whales begun in 1998 will continue indefinitely.
The work is currently based at Rarotonga, but additional surveys have
been (and will be) conducted elsewhere in the Cooks. The major objectives
of this study are: (i) to estimate the abundance of humpbacks in the
region; (ii) to document habitat use and behavior of whales in the Cooks;
(iii) to assess the degree of exchange between the Cooks and other areas
of the South Pacific using photo-identification; and (iv) through the
collection of biopsy samples from the Cooks, to contribute to an ocean-wide
investigation of the genetic structure of South Pacific humpback whales.
least two species of beaked whale (Cuvier's and Blainville's) are known
to occur in the waters of the CIWS (Table 1).
Cook Islands Whale Research has recovered four ziphiid skulls as well
as other skeletal remains, primarily from Rarotonga. Beaked whales are
sometimes encountered during surveys off Rarotonga, and a project to
document the occurrence, distribution and behavior of these animals
is currently funded.
date, surveys aimed at establishing the occurrence of cetaceans in the
CIWS area have been conducted at Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Palmerston
Atoll. However, additional surveys are planned in other areas, with
the immediate priority being the island of Penryn in the Northern Cooks.
Eventually, it is hoped that all the main island areas can be systematically
Collaboration with other institutions
Islands Whale Research is a member of the South Pacific Whale Research
Consortium (SPWRC). SPWRC serves as a vehicle for collaboration among
research institutions working on cetaceans in the South Pacific region,
and involves work in French Polynesia, the Cooks, Tonga, American Samoa,
Niue, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Australia (see SC/54/O14).
Photographs and biopsy samples collected in the Cooks have already contributed
to important inter-area comparisons within the Oceania region (Garrigue
et al. 2001, SPWRC 2001, SC/54/O14).
Islands Whale Research has conducted educational programs for all schools
and for the local community in general on Rarotonga. Additional programs
have been run on Palmerston Atoll and Aitutaki.
April 2002, The Cook Islands Whale Center opened in Avarua, Rarotonga.
This institution features educational displays, a whale museum, and
interpretive programs. The Museum is aimed primarily at local people,
but also caters to tourists.
noted by Hauser et al. (2000), the Cook Islands do not appear to have
ever been a major site for whaling. Maps compiled by Townsend (1935)
from American whaling logbook data show only three records of humpbacks
taken in the vicinity of the Cooks, but it seems likely that these whales
were encountered opportunistically by vessels en route to more established
grounds at Tonga or elsewhere in the southwestern Pacific region. Documentation
of local shore-based whaling in the Cook Islands is sparse, although
there are reports of whales taken by natives at Rarotonga. That the
focus of these catches was the humpback is suggested by a local tradition
that the flowering of the Ngatae (Indian Coral) tree during July represented
a cue for local whalers to prepare boats and equipment for the arrival
of the first whales (McCormack, 1990); this coincides with the timing
of the humpbacks' migration into Cook Island waters. The other plausible
target species, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), is much less
seasonal in its occurrence.
have recently learned that fisheries officers in the Cooks had been
given Discovery tags in the 1960's, for use with humpback whales. A
surviving fisheries officer recalls tagging at least two dozen humpbacks
in the waters around Rarotonga. We are currently attempting to discover
more about this effort, and whether recovery of any of these tags occurred
the declaration of the CIWS, the government of the Cook Islands enacted
a set of regulations aimed at the protection of cetaceans within Sanctuary
waters. As a result, it is now forbidden to kill, injure or harass whales
and other cetaceans within the Sanctuary.
P.J. and Baker, C.S. 2002. Modern whaling. In: Perrin, W.F., Würsig,
B. & Thewissen, J.G.M. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, pp.
1328-1332. Academic Press, New York.
Garrigue, C., Aguayo, A., Amante-Helweg, V.L.U., Baker, C.S., Caballero,
S., Clapham, P., Constantine, R., Denkinger, J., Donoghue, M., Flórez-González,
L., Greaves, J., Hauser, N., Olavarría, C., Pairoa, C., Peckham,
H. and Poole, M. 2002. Movements of humpback whales in Oceania, South
Pacific. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 4 (in press).
Hauser, N., Peckham, H. and Clapham, P.J. 2000. Humpback whales in the
southern Cook Islands, South Pacific. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 2: 159-164.
Leatherwood, S., Grove, J.S. and Zuckerman, A.E. 1991. Dolphins of the
genus Lagenorhynchus in the tropical South Pacific. Mar. Mammal Sci.
Mikhalev, Yu. 2000. Biological characteristics of humpbacks taken in
Area V by the whaling fleets Slava and Sovietskaya Ukraina. SC/52/IA11.
SPWRC. 2001. Report of the annual meeting of the South Pacific Whale
Research Consortium. Available from SPWRC Secretariat, P.O. Box 3069,
Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
SPWRC. 2002. Report of the annual meeting of the South Pacific Whale
Research Consortium. SC/54/O14.
Townsend, C.H. 1935. The distribution of certain whales as shown by
logbook records of American whaleships. Zoologica 19: 1-50 + 6 maps.
Yablokov, A.V., Zemsky, V.A., Mikhalev, Y.A., Tormosov, V.V. and Berzin,
A.A. 1998. Data on Soviet whaling in the Antarctic in 1947-1972 (population
aspects). Russ. J. Ecol. 29: 38-42.
1. Cetacean species known from confirmed scientific observations
to occur in the Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary.
et al. (2000). Seasonal occurrence in austral winter; likely
breeds and calves in the region.
B. m. brevicauda.
minke whale or Dwarf common minke whale
observed offshore breaching.
miles from reef.
observed by fishing boats.
et al. (1991).
both alive and stranded.
both alive and stranded.
in Rarotonga in 2001.
in Rarotonga in 2010.
2. Cetacean species likely to occur in the Cook Islands
Whale Sanctuary, based on either equivocal local reports or knowledge
of their distribution and range in the South Pacific Ocean.