Kaikōura IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

5,902 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Hector’s dolphin – Cephalorhynchus hectori hectori

Criterion A

Antarctic blue whale – Balaenoptera musculus intermedia

Criterion A

Pygmy blue whale – Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda

Criterion A

New Zealand fur seal – Arctocephalus forsteri

Criterion C (1)

Marine Mammal Diversity

Criterion D (2)

Megaptera novaeangliae, Balaenoptera borealis, Balaenoptera physalus, Eubalaena australis, Lissodelphis peronii, Tursiops truncatus, Delphinus delphis, Orcinus orca, Globicephala melas, Hydrurga leptonyx, Mirounga leonina, Physeter macrocephalus


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‘Kaikōura provides important habitat for mainly young male sperm whales feeding on squid and fish in the demersal and mesopelagic waters (Childerhouse et al. 1995, Guerra et al. 2017, Giorli & Goetz 2019) (Figure 2). Numbers have declined over the past 30 years, possibly related to prey shifts associated with changes in water temperature (Guerra 2019). The Kaikōura region has nearshore turbid habitat, rocky coastlines as well as proximity to the Hikurangi Trench deep-water canyon system, making this a marine mammal hotspot (Stephenson et al. 2020). There are two marine mammal protected areas; Te Rohe o Te Whānau Puha – Kaikōura Whale Sanctuary and Ōhau Point Seal Sanctuary, both incorporated in the Kaikōura Marine Strategy (Te Tai ō Marokura) Marine Management Act (2014). This is one of New Zealand’s most studied regions, with multiple long-term studies of marine mammal species having been conducted.There are several well-established New Zealand fur seal colonies with all age-classes hauled out along the coastline (Boren et al. 2006). Resource availability is an important predictor of breeding sites for New Zealand fur seals, and Kaikōura has a highly suitable coastline for breeding and feeding habitat (Bradshaw et al. 2002). The impacts from land- and boat-based tourism on cetaceans and pinnipeds are well-managed, including viewing pups in the inland forested stream area at Ōhau Point (Acevedo-Gutiérrez et al. 2011, Boren et al. 2002, Lundquist et al. 2012, Richter et al. 2006).

Areas with large river outflows are ideal habitat for Hector’s dolphins (Red-Listed as Endangered). There are two Hectors dolphin populations in the IMMA that are largely isolated from one another by the environmental barrier formed by the deep-water Kaikōura Canyon, with larger numbers to the north of the canyon (Weir and Sagnol 2015). This barrier has led to clear genetic differentiation (Hamner et al. 2016) and movement patterns reveal that these two populations have very restricted home ranges compared to other populations of Hector’s dolphins (Bräger and Bräger 2018). Dusky dolphins forage at night on mesopelagic fish that rise near the surface with the deep scattering layer (Dahood and Benoit-Bird 2010). During the day the dolphins come close to shore to rest and socialise in aggregations of tens to hundreds of individuals, particularly during the summer months (Würsig et al. 2007). Dusky dolphins are occasionally associated with common, Hector’s and common bottlenose dolphins in nearshore and offshore waters. Suspected hybrid common-dusky and bottlenose-dusky dolphins have been sighted.

There are increasing numbers of humpback and blue whale sightings off Kaikōura (Constantine et al. 2007, Barlow et al. 2018). Humpback whales and blue whales are primarily travelling north as part of their migration path to breeding grounds (Constantine et al. 2007, Warren et al. 2021), or simply to reach different feeding grounds (pygmy blue whales, Goetz et al. 2018). There have been several instances of humpback whale entanglement in craypot (rock lobster) lines which is cause for concern. The submarine canyon is ideal habitat for teuthophagous species in addition to sperm whales, such as pilot whales and beaked whales with strandings and live sightings recorded in the region. Common dolphins, common bottlenose dolphins and southern right whale dolphins are often sighted in the canyon, often in association with dusky dolphins. Pinnipeds such as leopard seals (Hupman et al. 2020) and southern elephant seals are occasionally sighted in the region.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability

The IMMA contains year-round habitat for two genetically differentiated populations of Hector’s dolphins (Hamner et al. 2016). The species is red-listed as Endangered by IUCN. The two Kāikoura populations are quite isolated and as such, both require conservation action (Roberts et al. 2019). Both Antarctic (Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List) and pygmy blue whales (Red-Listed as Endangered) are regularly sighted in this region and recent acoustic surveys detected blue whales throughout most of the year (Warren et al. 2021). There were peaks in Antarctic blue whale calls from June – November and pygmy blue whale calls peaked from March – June with low level detections during other months (Warren et al. 2021).

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas 

The Kaikōura region has several large pupping grounds for New Zealand fur seals (Boren et al. 2006). These are well-established along the rocky coastline but also include an inland forested stream area at Ōhau Point where pups aggregate before weaning (Acevedo-Gutiérrez et al. 2011, Boren et al. 2002). Resource availability is an important predictor of breeding sites for New Zealand fur seals, and Kaikōura has a highly suitable coastline for breeding and area restricted feeding habitat (Bradshaw et al. 2002). The impacts from land- and boat-based tourism on cetaceans and pinnipeds are well-managed, including viewing pups in the inland forested stream area at Ōhau Point (Acevedo-Gutiérrez et al. 2011, Boren et al. 2002, Lundquist et al. 2012, Richter et al. 2006).

Criterion D: Special Attributes

Sub-criterion D2: Diversity

Kaikōura is one of New Zealand’s cetacean hotspots (Stephenson et al. 2020). The region has resident sub-populations of Hector’s dolphins, seasonally resident dusky dolphins that use nearshore waters during the day then move offshore at night to feed. There are frequently sighted but non-resident common bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and southern right whale dolphins. There is also the year-round presence of primarily young male sperm whales feeding in the deeper canyon waters (Guerra et al. 2017). Long-finned pilot whales and beaked whales are sighted in deeper offshore waters where they are likely foraging on squids and fishes (Meyer 2020). There are seasonal sightings of migratory humpback whales, and both Antarctic and pygmy blue whales as they migrate past the east coast of the South Island. There are also occasional sightings of sei and fin whales. Kaikōura is a key location for fur seals, with elephant seals and leopard seals often sighted.

Supporting Information

Acevedo-Gutiérrez, A., Acevedo, L., Boren, L. 2011. ‘Effects of the presence of official-looking volunteers on harassment of New Zealand fur seals’. Conservation Biology 25: 623-627

Baker, C.S., Boren, L., Childerhouse, S., Constantine, R., van Helden, A., Lundquist, D., Rayment, W., Rolfe, J.R. 2019. Conservation status of New Zealand marine mammals, 2019. New Zealand Threat Classification Series 29. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand, pp 18

Barlow, D.R., Torres, L.G., Hodge, K.B., Steel, D., Baker, C.S., Chandler, T.E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M.C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R.M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P.A., Peters, C., Stockin, K.A., Tessaglia-Hymes,, T., Klinck, H. 2018. ‘Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence’. Endangered Species Research 36: 27-40

Boren, L.J., Gemmell, N.J., Barton, K.J. 2002. ‘Tourist disturbance on New Zealand fur seals Arctocephalus forsteri’. Australian Mammalogy 24: 85-95

Boren, L.J., Muller, C.G., Gemmell, N.J. 2006. ‘Colony growth and pup condition of the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) on the Kaikoura coastline compared with other east coast colonies’. Wildlife Research 33: 497-505

Bradshaw, C.J.A., Davis, L.S., Purvis, M., Zhou, Q., Benwell, G.L. 2002. ‘Using artificial neural networks to model the suitability of coastline for breeding by New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri)’. Ecological Modelling 148: 111-131

Bräger, S., Bräger, Z. 2018. ‘Range utilization and movement patterns of coastal Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori)’. Aquatic Mammals 44: 633-642

Childerhouse, S.J., Dawson, S.M., Slooten, E. 1995. ‘Abundance and seasonal residence of sperm whales at Kaikoura, New Zealand’. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73: 723-731

Constantine, R., Russell, K., Gibbs, N., Childerhouse, S., Baker, C.S. 2007. ‘Photo-identification of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in New Zealand waters and their migratory connections to breeding grounds of Oceania’. Marine Mammal Science 23: 715-720

Dahood, A.D., Benoit-Bird, K.J. 2010. Dusky Dolphins Foraging at Night. In: Würsig B & Würsig M. The Dusky Dolphin: Master Acrobat off Different Shores, Academic Press. pp 99-114

Giorli, G., Goetz, K.T. 2019. ‘Foraging activity of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) off the east coast of New Zealand’. Scientific Reports 9: 12182

Goetz, K.R., Childerhouse, S.J., Paton, D., Ogle, M., van der Linde, K., Constantine, R., Double, M.C., Andrews-Goff, V., Zerbini A.N., Olson, P.A. 2021. First satellite-tracked movements of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) in New Zealand waters. Marine Mammal Science 38: 742-755

Guerra, M. 2019. ‘Foraging ecology of sperm whales at Kaikōura’. PhD Thesis. Dunedin: University of Otago.

Guerra, M., Hickmott, L., van der Hoop, J., Rayment, W., Leunissen, E., Slooten, E., Moore, M. 2017. ‘Diverse foraging strategies by a top marine predator: Sperm whales exploit pelagic and demersal habitats in the Kaikōura submarine canyon’. Deep Sea Research Part I 128: 98-108

Hamner, R.M., Steel, D., Constantine, R., Morrissey, M., Ogle, M., Weir, J., Olavarria, C., Baxter, A., Arlidge, W., Boren, L., Baker, C.S. 2016. Local population structure and abundance of Hector’s dolphins off Kaikoura – 2014 and 2015. Unpublished Report to the Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand, pp. 24

Hupman, K., Visser, I.N., Fyfe, J., Cawthorn, M., Forbes, G., Grabham, A.A., Bout, R., Mathias, B., Benninghaus, E., Matucci, K., Cooper, T., Fletcher, L., Godoy, D. 2020. ‘From Vagrant to Resident: occurrence, residency and births of leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in New Zealand waters’. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 54: 1-23

Lundquist, D., Gemmell, N.J., Würsig, B. 2012. ‘Behavioral responses of dusky dolphins groups (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) to tour vessels off Kaikoura, New Zealand’. PLoS ONE 7: e41969

Markowitz, T. 2004. ‘Social organization of the New Zealand dusky dolphin’. PhD Thesis. College Station: Texas A&M University.

Meyer, C.E. 2020. ‘Population demographics, social structure and interspecific associations of free-ranging long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) in New Zealand. MSc. Thesis. University of Auckland: Auckland.

Orbach, D.N., Pearson, H.C., Beier-Engelhaupt, A., Deutsch, S., Srinivasan, M., Weir, J.S., Yin, S., Würsig, B. 2018. ‘Long-term assessment of spatio-temporal association patterns of dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) off Kaikoura, New Zealand’. Aquatic Mammals 44: 608-619

Richter, C., Dawson, S., Slooten, E. 2006. ‘Impacts of commercial whale watching on male sperm whales at Kaikoura, New Zealand’. Marine Mammal Science 22: 46-63.

Roberts, J.O., Webber, D.N., Roe, W.D., Edwards, C.T.T., Doonan, I.J. 2019. Spatial risk assessment of threats to Hector’s and Māui dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori). New Zealand Aquatic Environment and Biodiversity Report No. 214. Fisheries New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand, pp. 168

Stephenson, F., Goetz, K., Sharp, B.R., Mouton, T.L., Beets, F.L., Roberts, J., MacDiarmid, A.B., Constantine, R., Lundquist, C.J. 2020. Modelling the spatial distribution of cetaceans in New Zealand waters. Diversity and Distributions 26: 495-516

Warren VE, Širovic´ A, McPherson C, Goetz KT, Radford CA and Constantine R (2021) Passive acoustic monitoring reveals spatio-temporal distributions of Antarctic and pygmy blue whales around central New Zealand. Front. Mar. Sci. 7:575257. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.575257

Warren VE, Constantine R, Noad M, Garrigue C, Garland EC. 2020 Migratory insights from singing humpback whales recorded around central New Zealand. R. Soc. Open Sci. 7:201084.

Weir, J.S., Sagnol, O. 2015. ‘Distribution and abundance of Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) off Kaikoura, New Zealand’. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 49: 376-389

Würsig, B., Duprey, N., Weir, J. 2007. Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) in New Zealand waters. DOC Research & Development Series 270, Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand, pp 28.


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