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Right whale – or wrong weather – may halt fireworks (photos)

Wellington’s been the right place for a visit by a rare southern right whale since it was first spotted in the harbour on Tuesday. But the presence of the whale in the harbour may postpone the Wellington City Council’s inaugural mid-year fireworks event.

Photograph by Sean Gillespie

Wellington turned into Whaleywood this week as locals thronged to the waterfront to try to see the southern right whale that has been exploring the harbour from Petone to the ferry terminal.

Now there are concerns that the docile aquatic mammal could be endangered by the explosive ten-minute display of light and sound from 6:30pm on Saturday evening, with calls for the Council to postpone the display until the whale has left the harbour.

The weather may be the deciding factor, with north to northwest gales forecast to rise to severe gales in exposed places tomorrow, and further northwest gales expected Sunday (the proposed date for a postponed event).

Saturday evening’s Sky Show is planned to cap off a month of Matariki events, preceding the Hurricanes playing the Blues at Westpac Stadium. It’s the first time it will be held mid-year, and promises to include new effects.

However, Council is taking into account people’s concerns about the timing of the Sky Show while the southern right whale is visiting the harbour. Council is monitoring the situation along with DOC, and is taking advice from them regarding the situation.

A decision is expected later today.

The southern right whale has attracted nicknames, both with a Michael Jackson connection: “Bubbles”, which is the name of the 35-year-old chimpanzee formerly owned by the late pop star, and “Free Welly”, from the film Free Willy for which Jackson provided the theme song.

Numerous photographs and videos have flooded on to social media.

On Thursday, Wellington City Councillor Simon Woolf joined thousands of people packing Oriental Bay. The owner of Woolf Photography, he always carries his Nikon camera and Sigma 50-500mm lens with him, and captured a spectacular shot of the whale in front of the Beehive, which he posted on Twitter.

Photograph by Simon Woolf, Thursday

Other images were provided to the Wellington App by Wellington journalist and photographer Peter Dyer, and photojournalist Sean Gillespie who works in communications and strategy, and Krystal Field.

Photograph by Sean Gillespie, Thursday

Photograph by Krystal Field from Twitter, Friday morning

Photograph by Peter Dyer, Thursday

It is not unusual for whales to come into Wellington harbour, but this was the first recorded sighting of a southern right whale since 2010, according to Department of Conservation marine species support officer Hannah Hendriks.

She advised whale watchers to keep at least 50 metres away from the whale. Collectively, no more than three vessels, including boats or kayaks, or aircraft or drones should be within 300m of any marine mammal. Swimming with whales is not permitted.

Police were patrolling the water on Thursday afternoon to ensure boats and kayaks kept their distance.

Southern right whales were once populous in New Zealand waters, with an estimated 50,000 active before Europeans arrived. There were two right whale populations in New Zealand – one in the sub-antarctic Auckland Islands and another that travelled along the coast and stuck closer to the mainland. They were hunted to near extinction and by the mid-1940s it’s thought there may have been 20 or less.

Right whales were given their name by whalers because they were the “right” whale to hunt. The whales were targeted by because of their slow, surface-skimming feeding behaviour and tendency to stay close to the coast. They also produced high yields of whale oil from their high blubber content, with the blubber keeping the whale afloat when killed.

Photograph by Sean Gillespie, Thursday

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