Project Objectives of the Year: Cook Islands

Opportunistic and systematic surveys for humpback whales. Analysis of satellite-tagged humpback whales in Oceania. Comparison of satellite-tagged humpbacks in Australia, New Caledonia, Brazil, the North Atlantic, and the Cook Islands.

Project Objectives:

  1. Document population of humpback whales and other cetaceans.
  2. Photo-identification of individual animals using digital images and video.
  3. Document distribution of cetaceans within the area and compare this to the distribution of other species of marine life and oceanographic variables.
  4. Opportunistically collect sloughed skin, bodily fluids, and bone for genetic analysis.
  5. Carry out surface and underwater behavioural observations of cetaceans.
  6. To record and assess diving behaviour of humpback whales, beaked whales, and sperm whales in the area.
  7. Involve and engage Cook Islanders in research process to further their understanding of and commitment to marine conservation through public lectures offered to schools and community groups. Build exhibits for the whale education center.
  8. Film and create television documentaries and news stories.
  9. Opportunistically satellite-tag humpback whales off Rarotonga to determine migratory pathways. Follow these whales via satellite and download their GPS position. Involve schools, government, and newspapers.


Cook Islands Whale Research and Education Centre

Nan Hauser, with the assistance of benefactors Joan Daeschler and Helen Jordan, founded and built the Cook Islands Whale Research and Education Centre on the Are Matua of Rarotonga, Cook Islands in 2000.

blue and white ocean side cottageFor the past 23 years, the Center has served as an educational experience for locals, tourists, students, interns, visiting scientists, volunteers, and government officials. It has been a place to view videos, exhibits, specimens, whale-related artifacts, and artwork by the children of the Centre. School groups visit the Centre and educational courses have been adopted into the local school curriculum and the internet.

The Centre’s doors will be open 5 days a week, allowing locals, tourists, and students to learn about the Cook Islands and the ocean that surrounds us. The Centre gives everyone a better understanding of Earth, the ocean sciences of the country, the whales, and its interesting history.

Thousands of people have visited. Many keep in touch, write personal whale stories, and send newspaper clippings. The Centre has served as a place of education, raising awareness and bringing curious people of all ages, together. It has provided a safe learning environment for children after school, as well as school groups during school hours. Over the years, children have learned to care for the environment and take “ownership” of their whales, dolphins, sharks, and turtles.

The Whale Research and Education Centre is introducing more exhibits on the ocean and its inhabitants, the shipwrecks, the geology, the history, and more.

research team photoElena and Edwin Tavioni, Air New Zealand, T and M Heather, Strickland Motors, Pacific Marine Charters, Akura Charters, D-Vent Sheet Metal, all the fishermen, and many other Cook Island companies have continued to support our efforts over the years to keep the whale research going.

Collectively holding the same vision enlarges the creation of all great things!


Beaked Whales

Opportunistic and systematic surveys for beaked whales and other small cetaceans off the coast of Rarotonga and the other islands of the Cook Islands.

20 of the world’s almost 90 whale and dolphin species belong to the family Ziphiidae, the beaked whales. However, little is known about most beaked whale species because they favour deep-water habitats and study and knowledge of these cetaceans is in its infancy. Sightings of beaked whales at sea are rare due to their unobtrusive surfacing behaviours and their long dive times. Based on strandings data and limited observations at sea, beaked whales are thought to be some of the longest and deepest-diving of all marine mammals. Beaked whales appear to be particularly sensitive to some manmade sounds, such as certain sonars as evidenced by frequent strandings events globally. The conservation status of these species is unknown.

Project Objectives:

  1. Document population of beaked whales and other cetaceans off the Cook Islands.
  2. Photo-identification of individual animals using digital film and video.
  3. Opportunistically collect sloughed skin and biological samples for genetic analysis.
  4. Carry out surface and underwater behavioural observations of dolphins and whales.
  5. Involve and engage Cook Islanders and university students in research process to further their understanding of and commitment to marine conservation through public outreach sessions offered to grammar schools, high schools, universities, and community groups.
  6. Involve whalers from Cook Strait in New Zealand in a film and as members of the project “Whale Like Me.”


Humpback Whale Song

Humpback whale song has had an iconic place in the public perception of cetaceans for decades. More recently, researchers have described how the songs are not just striking in their complex structure, but how they change over time, with distinctive modes of cultural change. We still don’t understand the dynamics and factors involved in these processes, but studying them offers potentially broad insight into the cultural evolution. How song is transmitted between breeding subpopulations in the South Pacific Ocean remains unknown. We will deploy acoustic recorders in the Cook Islands at the peak of the singing season to capture fine-scale song recordings. Detailed data like this can tell us whether multiple subpopulations are in acoustic contact at this site, informing our understanding of how these whales use the Cook Islands– as a migratory corridor or a breeding ground. This is critical from a conservation perspective, as this may provoke a re-evaluation of management boundaries for this endangered population. This study will advance our understanding of cultural transmission and social learning mechanisms in nonhuman animals as well as enable new comparative perspectives to better understand culture in our own species.


Contact our team to learn more about past, current, and future whale research projects.