Ecology of blue whales in New Zealand

Investigators: Dr. Leigh Torres, Dawn Barlow, Dr. Holger Klinck, Dimitri Ponirakis, Todd Chandler

The GEMM Lab has been studying blue whales in New Zealand since Dr. Leigh Torres first hypothesized the existence of an undocumented foraging ground in the South Taranaki Bight in 2013. Three years of comprehensive vessel-based data collection took place in the summers of 2014, 2016, and 2017, and hydrophones deployed in the STB recorded blue whale vocalizations for two full years. Drawing on multiple lines of evidence, we documented a population of blue whales in New Zealand that are genetically distinct and present year-round, and provided managers with a first population abundance estimate. The South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of New Zealand appears to be a critically important feeding ground for this unique population of blue whales. However, it is also a region heavily exploited by industry, with active oil and gas extraction, seismic surveying, shipping traffic, and proposed seabed mining activity. The discovery of the New Zealand blue whale population has garnered considerable attention from scientists, managers, and stakeholders, leading to a proposal to designate the STB as a marine mammal sanctuary.

Our ongoing multidisciplinary research efforts will enhance our understanding of this recently documented blue whale population through the following objectives:

  1. Describe and model association patterns between blue whales, krill, and oceanographic features
  2. Develop and test predictive models to forecast blue whale distribution patterns using readily accessible data sources (e.g., remotely sensed satellite data, wind).
  3. Describe seasonal cycles in blue whale habitat use patterns using passive acoustic monitoring end environmental data
  4. Describe the ocean soundscape in the region and evaluate overlap between blue whales and anthropogenic noise
  5. Conduct a comprehensive health assessment of New Zealand blue whales, incorporating body condition, stress and reproductive hormone information, and skin condition

With the progression of this research project into the data analysis phase we continue building a robust understanding of blue whale ecology in the region. Our findings are providing environmental decision makers in New Zealand and the region with the necessary information on blue whale ecology and biology to effectively manage potential anthropogenic threats.


Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023). Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecology and Evolution, 13(2): e9770. 

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG (2022). Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. Journal of Mammalogy, 104(1): 29-38.

Barlow DR, Estrada Jorge M, Klinck H, Torres LG (2022). Shaken, not stirred: blue whales show no acoustic response to earthquake events. Royal Society Open Science, 9(7): 220242. 

Barlow DR and Torres, LG (2021). Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. Journal of Applied Ecology, 58(11): 2493-2504.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG (2021). Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Scientific reports, 11(1), 1-10.

Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD (2020) Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ 8:e8906.

Barlow DR, Pepper AL, Torres LG (2019) Skin Deep: An Assessment of New Zealand Blue Whale Skin Condition. Front Mar Sci 6:757.

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.


More information about this project:



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Project collaborators:

Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program

New Zealand Department of Conservation

Cetacean Conservation Genomics Laboratory, Oregon State University

Zooplankton Ecology Laboratory, Oregon State University

National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Science, Ltd.

University of Auckland



Funding for this project was provided by The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (NOAA/CIMRS), Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Thorpe Foundation, and an anonymous donor.



Drawing on multiple lines of evidence, the GEMM Lab has documented a population of blue whales in New Zealand that are genetically distinct and present year-round. Ongoing research efforts will enhance our understanding of this recently documented population and inform management.