Rare whale among large number discovered off Otago's coast

The discovery of large numbers of whales swimming off Otago's coast has surprised scientists who've spent over a year studying the marine mammals.

The find surprised scientists who've spent over one year studying the marine mammals. Source: 1 NEWS

Marta Guerra of Otago University Marine Science says the marine mammal researchers didn't know what to expect in the area.

"We suspected that it would be a productive and rich area but we didn't know what whales and dolphins we might see," she said.

What the researchers found were pilot and sperm whales in the area consistently, plus a major discovery of shepherd's beaked whales, rarely seen in New Zealand waters.

"I believe it's been seen three times alive ... and it's never been seen alive off Otago coast. And they were seen three times out of these 10 trips. So they're obviously there, it wasn't just a fluke," Ms Guerra said.

The scientists believe the area is second only behind Kaikoura in terms of year-round whale numbers.

The whales off the Otago coast were discovered more than 25 kilometres out to sea, whereas Kaikoura's famous whales are found just five kilometres offshore. 

But unlike Kaikoura, the submarine canyons the whales live in are a long way from dry land.

The canyons, up to 2000 metres deep, are high in food sources such as zoo plankton.

The new research adds weight to the Dunedin City Council's stance opposing any gas and oil exploration off the Otago coast.

"The effect on wildlife wasn't part of our consideration at the time, but it reinforces that decision," said Dave Cull, Dunedin Mayor.

And the team behind the discovery are hoping their research will also lead to special protection from extensive commercial fishing in the area.