Since 1998, Cook Islands Whale Research (CIWR), in affiliation with Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation (CCRC), has been studying and distributing information on the populations of cetaceans and other marine mammals in the Cook Islands, South Pacific. CIWR documents population abundance of humpback whales, beaked whales, sperm whales, dolphins, other cetaceans, marine mammals, turtles and sharks through opportunistic and systematic surveys. Through research and education, CIWR strives to ensure the protection of endangered South Pacific humpback whales and other species passing through our EEZ.
See our Research page for more about our research topics and methods!
CIWR’s work began in September of 1998 when an exploratory survey was conducted in the waters of the Cook Islands. Throughout the austral winter months, humpbacks migrate to Oceania to breed. They migrate from one of the least-studied Southern Hemisphere management areas, Antarctic Area VI / Area I. Field seasons have followed since 1998, during which hundreds of humpback whales have been individually identified, mother-calf pairs observed, DNA and other genetic material collected, humpbacks satellite tagged, songs extensively recorded and surface and underwater behaviour observed.
Between 1998 and 2020, CIWR has spent a total of 25,266 hours and 29 minutes surveying whales over the course of 2,611 days. 9,750 hours and 26 minutes were spent at sea over the course of 1,587 of those days. CIWR has documented 4,862 whales in 3,047 groups. We have had 1,611 singles; 775 pairs; 186 trios; 343 mother and calf pairs; and 170 mother, calf, and escort groups. 420 singers were also documented.
- Continuation of its extended study, which compares genetic, photo-identification and song samples from Cook Islands' humpback whales with samples from other breeding sites in the South Pacific
- Investigating behavioural ecology
- Using acoustic sound traps to record cetacean vocalizations and identify species of animals passing by
- Satellite tagging
- Migration and navigation
- Photo identification
- Population identity
- Underwater and surface behaviour
- Effects of global climate change on cetaceans
- Analysis of stable isotopes
- Necropsies of deceased cetaceans
- Infrared analysis and multispectral imaging
Increasing public awareness of whales and their conservation issues is essential for affecting informed decision-making concerning whale management. CIWR informs and engages in the Cook Islands, the United States, the Bahamas, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, South Africa, Cambodia, Australia, Bermuda and New Zealand by:
~ Offering first-hand practical experiences for interns and volunteers (for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
~ Supplementing school curricula with educational enrichment programs
~ Providing outreach presentations at public gatherings
~ Distributing scientific findings to decision-makers
~ Contributing footage and photographs of whales, background information and interviews for social media, television, radio and printed broadcast
Moreover, CIWR informs worldwide audiences through television documentaries, magazine articles, scientific journals, social media and websites actively updated from the field.
Nan has been featured in many documentary films and television programs, sharing CIWR’s research and raising awareness about the beautiful whales of the Cook Islands. See our Films page to watch some of these films!
When cetaceans, marine mammals or other marine species are found stranded in the Cook Islands' waters, CIWR assists with rescue and rehabilitation in order to provide the animal the best chance to return back to its marine habitat in a healthy state. In the past, this has included stranding events of Cuvier’s beaked whales, sperm whales, humpback whales, seven-armed octopuses (yes, the correct word is "octopuses" not "octopi!"), sharks, a melon-headed whale, a spinner dolphin, a Fraser’s dolphin, a fur seal and a turtle in the waters of the Cook Islands.
During the rescue and rehabilitation process, CIWR will collect scientific data. If the rehabilitation is unsuccessful, CIWR will collect samples and perform necropsies.
Specimens are often frozen or preserved in alcohol for later analysis. We look for the possible cause of death, toxin loading, intestinal contents, possible plastic in the stomach, inner ear damage and other information.
In order to bring the research and discoveries of CIWR as well as the wonder of the Cook Islands' whales to residents and visitors alike, Nan Hauser, with the assistance of benefactors Helen Jordan (grandmother), Joan Daeschler (mother), Alexanna Thorp (daughter) and Tegan Robinson (granddaughter), developed the Cook Islands Whale Research & Education Centre in 2000.
For two decades, the Center served as an educational experience for locals, tourists, students, interns, visiting scientists, volunteers and government officials. It has been a place to view exhibits, specimens, whale-related artifacts, educational videos, documentaries and artwork by the children that visit the Centre. The Centre hosts school groups, and educational courses have been adopted into the local school curriculum. It has also provided a safe learning environment for children after school.
In October of 2017, the Centre was robbed of its goods and exhibits, and severe structural damage was inflicted. We are rebuilding the Whale Centre with hopes of making it better than ever and reopening in the next few months!
As part of its ongoing work, CIWR collaborates with the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC). Since 1998, SPWRC has met in Auckland to exchange information and ideas about the cetaceans and issues that they face as researchers in the South Pacific. Through this collaboration, catalogues of fluke photographs (representing over 2,000 individuals from Oceania alone) are compared in order to better understand regional return and interchange. Surveys and published capture-recapture estimates based on photo-identification indicate that the density of whales remains low throughout the wintering grounds of Oceania and the New Zealand migratory corridor. Genetic analyses are underway for recently collected sloughed skin and biopsy samples collected throughout the Oceania region. CIWR has found photo-ID and genotype matches between the Cook Islands and other island nations across Oceania.
"Humpback whales migrate each year to winter breeding grounds near islands and shallow banks in the tropical waters of Oceania (South Pacific) after feeding during summer in waters near the Antarctic. Humpback whales in Oceania were hunted first during the 19th century by 'Yankee' style whaling vessels and more intensively during the 20th century by factory ships and modern shore-based operations. The last recorded catches of these whales were by the Kingdom of Tonga, prior to the 1978 Royal decree prohibiting this hunt. Recovery in the abundance of humpback whales in Oceania has been slow and variable. Sightings remain rare along the coast of New Zealand and around several island groups, such as Fiji, where they were once common. Only recently has a primary reason for this slow and variable recovery been revealed. As part of a systematic program of illegal whaling, Soviet factory ships killed almost 13,000 humpback whales in the Antarctic waters directly south of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania during the 1959-60 season. This precipitated a crash in the numbers of humpback whales throughout Oceania and may have resulted in the extinction of some local populations.
"The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC) was formed by independent scientists to investigate the status of humpback and other whale species in the region of Oceania, including New Zealand and eastern Australia. Members have been involved in field studies initiated as early as 1991 in New Caledonia, the Kingdom of Tonga, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, as well as eastern Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific coast of South America, the Ross Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula. Members of the SPWRC met at the University of Auckland from 9-12 April, 2001. The consortium now meets annually to compare and review data collected during each winter season, including individual identification photographs, genetic samples, sighting records and song recordings.
"The primary purpose of the consortium is to coordinate and facilitate nonlethal research on large whales in the South Pacific region. Although humpback whales are the focus of much of the work, data are collected on all whales and the consortium serves to promote a better understanding of the biology and behavior of all cetacean, including the many species of dolphins found in this vast region (see Oremus et al. 2007). Documentation of the basic cetacean biodiversity of Oceania is a primary goal of the consortium. The principal field sites currently studied by the consortium and its members include French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga, New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Niue, American Samoa, Samoa, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, and eastern Australia, as well as the Antarctic feeding grounds. Collaborations include researchers along the coast of South America (Colombia and Chile) and in Western Australia.
"Executive Committee and officers: Scott Baker (University of Auckland and Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University), Phil Clapham (US National Marine Mammal Lab, Seattle), Rochelle Constantine (University of Auckland), Claire Garrigue (Operation Cetaces, New Caledonia), Nan Hauser (Cook Islands Whale Research), Mike Donoghue (New Zealand Department of Conservation), Michael Poole (French Polynesia), Mike Noad, (University of Queensland at Brisbane), Dave Paton (Southern Cross University), Debbie Steel (Oregon State University)."
-- Scott Baker, Oregon State University
- Marae Moana
- South Pacific Whale Research Consortium
- Auckland University of Technology
- University of Auckland
- University of Canterbury
- University of St. Andrew's
- Southern Cross University
- University of Queensland
- Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory (Humpback Whale Acoustic Research Collaboration)
- WaterBear Network
- Okeanos: Made from Stone
- Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics
- Pole to Pole
- Bermuda Underwater Explorers Institute
- Te Ara Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise
- Plastic Pollution Coalition
- Cyan Planet
- 5 Gyres
- Alaska Fisheries Science Center
- Frontiers Abroad
- IES Abroad
- Global Volunteers
- Important Marine Mammal Areas
- Marine Megafauna Foundation
- University of Tokyo
Contact our team to learn more about past, current and future whale research projects.