Whales are like angels

During the months from July to October, Humpback Whales migrate through the waters of the Cook Islands. There are many opportunities available for visitors to watch these impressive creatures as they frolic close to the shoreline.

Meet Nan Hauser – whale researcher extraordinaire… It is largely thanks to Nan’s determination and enormous efforts, that in 2001 the Cook Islands became the first country across Oceania, to formally declare its exclusive economic zone – an area of 1.8 million sq km – a whale sanctuary.

Hear of someone described as a whale and it usually conjures mental pictures of a sluggish person of very large proportions. Nothing could be further from the truth of the Cook Islands’ own “Whale Lady” – Nan Hauser – an attractive, petite powerhouse who has dedicated her life to the scientific study and protection of whales and dolphins.

She was a pretty little thing, with long hair bleached by the Bermuda sun and bright yellowish brown eyes that would gaze intently everyday over the ocean, hoping for a glimpse of her beloved dolphins and migrating whales. As a child spending time in the Bermuda islands, Nan Hauser always knew she wanted to work with these mysterious ocean creatures that have intrigued mankind for thousands of years.

“I realized quite early that I really loved helping people and animals. As a caregiver, I had a deeper calling for whales and dolphins; being a voice for them and feeling a need to protect them. It was a calling and as someone once told me, When the dolphins call, you can’t hang up!”

Then came an art degree and two nursing degrees, delivering babies and having her own babies. Nan then followed her passion and became an educator working for the Dolphin Research Centre in Florida studying and teaching cetacean behaviour.

She moved to the Bahamas and was hired by Discovery Channel to work on a television documentary on dolphins, saving enough money from film work to buy her own underwater camera equipment. “It was mostly for fun in the beginning but then I started seeing unusual and undocumented behaviours. Other researchers encouraged me to “write it up scientifically” and the next thing I knew I was traveling globally on a research vessel, as a research scientist, with my children as my assistants.”

It was during this time that Nan was tasked with researching a population of humpback whales off of Palmerston Atoll in the southern group of the Cook Islands.

“The strangest thing happened to me when I got off the plane in Rarotonga. I walked out of the airport and began to cry. I had an overwhelming feeling that I had come ‘home’, yet this was my first visit to Polynesia.”

It wasn’t until three years later after packing up her family and moving permanently to Rarotonga that Nan found out about Mary Ann Sherman. Buried deep in coastal bush near Ngatangiia village, Mary Ann Sherman was a woman ahead of her time – a female whaler. Sherman had left a New England port in 1845 on the whaling ship Harrison and died five years later in 1850. She was a direct relative of Nan’s.

“I never knew that she was here. Amazingly, when she went off on a whaling ship in 1845 her father, my great-great Uncle Zoeth, was so upset that he told everyone she had died and he erected a gravestone. I was so curious about her that I visited that grave in New Bedford, Massachusetts, back in the U.S. He has her date of death 5 years before she actually died!” She was only 19 when she left that New England port and she died at age 24.

“A lot of locals here in Rarotonga believe that I was Mary Ann in a past life and that I have come here to repent my sins” – by doing the opposite of what her adventurous ancestor did – protecting and studying these magnificent sea creatures.

It is largely thanks to Nan’s determination and enormous efforts, that in 2001 the Cook Islands became the first country across Oceania, to formally declare its exclusive economic zone – an area of 1.8 million sq km – a whale sanctuary.

More recently, that’s been followed by declaring on an international level, the belief that all whales born in Cook Islands waters belong to the Cook Islands, and as such come under the protection of this small sovereign Pacific island nation. This claim was set into motion when Nan began satellite tagging the humpbacks and watching where they migrated to. Once the whales left the EEZ of the Cook Islands they were no longer safely protected on their pathways to their feeding grounds in Antarctica.

The claim has been put forward to the Japanese Government that Cook Islands whales cannot be killed for so-called ‘research’ purposes as planned by the Fisheries Agency of Japan (FAJ). Greenpeace International reports, that “every year the FAJ sends a fleet of whaling ships to hunt whales under the guise of “scientific research”. These fleets aim to hunt almost 1,000 whales every year. Within this quota, they plan to kill 50 threatened humpback whales and 50 endangered fin whales. “

Nan is one of the founding scientists that spearheaded the now internationally famous Great Whale Trail satellite whale-tracking programme. It follows the migration of humpback whales from their breeding grounds in the South Pacific to Antarctica where they feed. The project was jointly launched by Greenpeace International, Cook Islands Whale Research, Opération Cétacés, Projeto Monitoramento de Baleias por Satélite and the U.S. National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

In September 2006, Nan tracked a whale’s long journey across Oceania to Antarctica. That was the evidence, she says, needed to prove to Japan that Cook Islands whales are migrating to the area where they want to harvest them. “You can’t kill them, they are part of the Cook Islands ancestry,” says Nan who led the scientific team that has now tagged ten whales off Rarotonga.

Cook Islands whales are very unique in that they apparently lack “site fidelity”. For 10 years, new whales have come through the Cook’s every year. In other breeding areas, the same humpbacks tend to return. Many questions are unanswered: Do whales have ancestral migration routes hardwired into their genes? Where are these Cook Islands whales coming from? Why are they traveling to the West from the Cooks and heading towards Tonga and Samoa? Why do they rarely split off towards French Polynesia? Why did a female humpback, photo identified by Nan in Rarotonga, end up in New Caledonia 38 days later?

Nan’s bigger question is “how do whales migrate?” – do they use landmarks like islands, bathymetry of the ocean floor, celestial cues from the sun, moon and stars, magnetic pull? Satellite tagging is answering some of these very mysterious questions. The implications of this discovery are huge and Nan and her colleagues are ecstatic.

Cook Island’s humpback whale songs are now heard all over the world. Nan has recorded our whales singing and Greenpeace has turned the songs into mobile phone ring tones that can be downloaded from their website. There is a theory that male humpbacks sing to attract females, yet in the Cook Islands Nan has never seen a female swim up to a singing male. She thinks males sing to alert the females that they are in the area, but that it is more about competition and dominance. Only the males sing, often attracting other males who approach them to compare their songs. The two males hang upside down, motionless in the water and take turns belting out their beautiful music to each other.

Author of many scientific publications, Nan is a leading world whale researcher and global teacher, traveling constantly to international meetings and representing the interests of the Cook Islanders. She describes herself as “just a facilitator. It is a true honour and privilege to work with whales and the Cook Islands people.”

She built the Whale Education Centre on Rarotonga and is the President and Director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation. Somehow, this amazing woman also finds the time for studies towards the completion of a PhD at Southern Cross University in Australia. Home is in Takuvaine Valley, perched on the side of a hill and surrounded by four acres of native bush. Still, her children and now her grandchildren, are part of her research team. Her 103 year old Grandmother no longer comes out on the boat!

From the veranda of this quiet corner of paradise she calls home, Nan explains that “Whales are like angels; they are evidence of God. They give you a sense of sacredness of life that you will carry with you forever.”

* PHOTOS courtesy of Nan Hauser and The Whale & Wildlife Centre, Rarotonga. Be sure to visit the Whale and Wildlife Centre in Rarotonga, situated on the back road behind the main town. There’s something for everyone plus a café, souvenir shop and WiFi hotspot. The small entry fee helps fund whale research.

  • TAGGING DOES NOT HARM THE WHALES and it provides valuable information for researchers.
A humpback whale playing in the sea off Black Rock
Nan Hauser
Tagging a whale off Rarotonga
Spotting whales off Rarotonga's north coast
Nan videos another tagging off Rarotonga
Rescuing a dolphin trapped in the lagoon
The Whale and Wildlife Centre in Rarotonga