The Department of Conservation (DOC), Ngāti Toa iwi and Project Jonah are today using five boats in an attempt to shepherd a pod of orca in Pāuatahanui Inlet out to sea.
DOC Marine Species Manager, Ian Angus says the efforts were being made due to the risk of the orca stranding themselves.
“We have concerns, in particular, for the wellbeing of the large male orca as its dorsal fin is drooping which is a sign it may be stressed,” he said.
“This technique of gently shepherding marine mammals with boats has been used with success in New Zealand and overseas in the past.
“The safety of the people involved is a priority and we are also carefully monitoring the safety and wellbeing of the orca. We will be monitoring for any sign of adverse reaction from the orca.
“The shepherding may not work this first time round and we may make further attempts in the next day or two, depending on the condition and situation with the orca.
“This isn’t an action we often take but, given our concern about the wellbeing of the orca and the risk the orca could strand, we have decided on balance we should try this intervention in the interests of their welfare and safety,” Mr Angus said.
DOC said COVID-19 health and hygiene requirements were in place while undertaking the work, with those involved wearing masks, gloves and other protective equipment, working with others in bubbles, or social distancing on larger boats.
The pod of seven orca has been in the Porirua Harbour inlet since Saturday morning and it is thought they might have been having difficulty finding their way out of the inlet through channels in the shallow water.
DOC staff have been monitoring the orca.
“Over the weekend they displayed normal behaviour and gave no cause for concern but yesterday afternoon they showed signs they may be stressed,” Mr Angus said.
DOC has worked with Project Jonah on a contingency plan should the orca strand.
“People are reminded only essential travel is allowed under Alert Level 4 and people should not go to the area to see the orca. DOC staff are working closely with New Zealand Police who are ensuring Alert Level 4 requirements are being met.”
“Orca are known to go into shallow water and estuaries to feed on stringrays and orca have been seen around the inlet before.”
Orca have a conservation threat status of nationally critical and the New Zealand population is thought to only number 150 to 200 individuals.