Leopard Seals and Blue Whales

I have had conversations with marine researchers in a variety of locations–from dusty offices to bustling cafes to chatting on the phone in the font seat of our little NZ car.

Dr. Krista Hupman - photo credit Dave Allen

Dr. Krista Hupman (photo credit Dave Allen)

I recently contacted the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) to ask if I could speak with someone about their whale research. I was put in contact with Dr. Krista Hupman, a NIWA cetacean biologist. It wasn’t possible to meet in person because she was heading out on a field study, but Dr. Hupman kindly agreed to talk with me over the phone. After a few attempts and some bad reception we finally made contact.

Dr. Hupman explained that a few years ago a leopard seal was spotted in the harbor of Auckland. This was out of the ordinary because leopard seals are known for living in the deep south nearer the Antarctic. The seal was to be forcibly removed because it did not belong in the area. Or so people thought. “But how do we know that they don’t live here?” Dr. Hupman told me over the phone. This is an interesting thought. Up until this point leopard seals hadn’t been researched in New Zealand waters because they weren’t thought to be a native species. This is the exciting thing about science. Boundaries are still being pushed, species classifications are still being challenged and redefined. History is still being made!

Owha ID sheet - leopardseals.org

Owha the leopard seal’s ID sheet

Dr. Hupman has been studying Owha, that same leopard seal, for six years now. It was easy to hear the excited in her voice as she talked about Owha. Since this encounter and the building evidence that leopard seals are present in New Zealand, Dr. Hupman has begun the journey to reclassify leopard seals from “vagrant” to “resident”. She is part of a non-profit organization called LeopardSeals.org and has been encouraging the public to help out by reporting sightings and sending photographs. It turns out that there are far more leopard seals coming to New Zealand than expected!

Dr. Hupman has also been involved with a blue whale survey that took place along the coastal waters of New Zealand last year. Interestingly there are two kinds of blue whales that can be found in New Zealand waters: the Antarctic blue whale and the pygmy blue whale. The pygmy blue whales are more commonly found in the Cook Strait region. The researchers saw 14 different blue whales during their expedition and were able to deploy a couple satellite tracking devices to see where these whales were spending their time. Dr. Hupman explained how challenging this type of research can be. Blue whales are cleaver and very fast. If they know they are being followed they can easily change direction and become difficult to find.

Two blue whales seen during the satellite tracking work - photo credit Dr. Krista Hupman

Two blue whales seen during the satellite tracking work (photo credit Dr. Krista Hupman)

One of the first questions I asked Dr. Hupman was whether she has been approached by other artists wanting to know about her work. This was a first for her. I explained my intent to connect with cetology using art and use art as a way of bringing awareness about whales. It was inspiring to hear her talk about her scientific journey and her heart for public outreach and long-term research projects. Long-term projects are challenging to get funding for because they take time, but the results are so much richer. She mentioned how wonderful the long-term research as been on our southern resident killer whales–to watch whales over a lifespan. It is always nice to make a Canada connection.

Blue whale satellite tracking

Blue whale satellite tracking

Through my conversation with Dr. Hupman I discovered a few surprising things: that a cetologist can also have a deep passion for leopard seals, that scientific classifications can still be challenged and redefined, and that some of the largest animals on the planet swim figure eights around New Zealand. Dr. Hupman also told me that someone sent her some leopard seal poo… with a USB stick inside… with photos of leopard seals! It’s true! You can’t make this stuff up. =)

If you are interested to learn more about topics I briefly mentioned in this post, here are a few interesting articles and platforms to check out:

NIWA on Instagram

Leopardseals.org on Instagram

A leopard seal has spent so much time in New Zealand waters she has prompted a NIWA scientist to challenge conventional thinking about the species

A USB stick was found in defrosted leopard seal poo – and it still worked

Satellite tracking of blue whales in New Zealand waters

Tagged blue whale swims around the South Island

Understanding the movement of pygmy blue whales in New Zealand waters

Leopard seal - photo credit Dr. Ingrid Visser

Leopard seal (photo credit Dr. Ingrid Visser)



Science, Cetaceans, Penguins & Mountain-Dwelling Seabirds

The catch phrase of Kaikoura, a small town on the north western coast of the South Island, is “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea”. Sounds charming. I didn’t understand the true intensity of this phrase before coming here. Founded as a whaling town in 1842 Kaikoura is situated on a peninsula jutting awkwardly into the South Pacific, hemmed in from behind by a band of snow topped mountains. You might not guess it if you looked out across the sea, but not far off shore–just 500 meters away from Goose Bay–is a massive, underwater canyon dropping to depths deeper than two kilometers below the surface. This dramatic submarine terrain is a unique habitat. Upwellings and currents created by the trench provide food for all kinds of marine life. If you are a whale, this is the place to be!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with two members of the Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute (KORI), Chloe Cargill and Grant Ellis. Originally from the UK, they are in Kaikoura working with the research, public education and conservation efforts of KORI.  Founded in 2012, KORI is a non-profit dedicated to protecting and researching local marine creatures and their habitat. KORI has two key projects underway: KORI’s Hector’s Dolphin Project and P.E.A.P. (Penguin Education and Awareness Program).

KORI’s Hector’s Dolphin Project focuses on New Zealand’s smallest dolphin. These little dolphins are only found in New Zealand and classified as endangered. They are known for their rounded dorsal fin. Their fin is smoothly rounded at birth and over time gets small nicks and notches which become unique to the individual. KORI has been building a photo catalogue of these fins over the past six years. One thing that KORI thrives at is encouraging public engagement–they have even created a Top Fins downloadable page for the public to help with fin identification and add to their database.

The Penguin Education and Awareness Program is centered around the little blue penguin. This program gives the public a glimpse into their lives and helps educate people on how to best share space with these timid birds. Little Blue Penguins come to the Kaikoura area to nest and molt. Molting is a process where old feathers fall out and new ones grow. Little Blues have a “catastrophic molt”, which means this happens all at once. It takes about two weeks. During this time they cannot return to the water because they lack waterproof feathers.  They are quite venerable while they are land-bound, so public education is important. KORI also operates a penguin education viewing area that is lit with a red light to allow people to observe wild penguins with minimal disturbance.

The people of Kaikoura know they live in a special place and actively do their best to protect it. From my conversation with Chloe and Grant I also learned about other conservation efforts happening in the area run by DOC (the Department of Conservation) and The Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust. The Hutton’s Shearwater is the only seabird in the world that breeds in sub-alpine environments. There are only two surviving colonies in the mountains behind Kaikoura. When the young birds are ready to head to sea for the first time, they leave their nests at night. It is possible that artificial lights in the town confuse the shearwaters and throw off their internal navigation because many crash land in the streets of Kaikoura. Chloe and Grant volunteer as night patrollers, driving through the streets of Kaikoura looking for fallen birds and bringing them to the rehab center where they are banded and later released in the ocean.

-161.411°, 54.795°, Natasha van Netten, 2015

-161.411°, 54.795°, gouache on embossed rag paper, detail of 22″x30″, Natasha van Netten

It was a pleasure to meet with both Chloe and Grant and learn about the local marine life and conservation. I left the meeting feeling encouraged by the involvement of the community, the dedication of KORI and by learning more about cetaceans! I can’t include everything that we talked about in todays blog because it is already getting long, but later I will tell you what I learned about Dusky Dolphins. I feel so inspired. I am thinking I should expand my embossed Cetacean: Chartwork series to include a piece on Kaikoura… and I am brewing an idea about cetacean-lead-cartography… more to come later.

* I would like to say a special thank you to Chloe Cargill for providing images for this post




Art to Go

Traveling as an artist has been a learning experience because my “studio” is now condensed into a carry on bag. Artists often predetermine parameters before approaching an artwork or series: restricted colours, size restraints, time limits, etc. Travel also forces limitations and they start when I pack my bag. I can’t bring everything. What will I need? What will I miss? The supplies I choose will have a huge impact on the art I create. Yes, it is possible to purchase or find items while traveling, but there is no grantee you will find what you are looking for, or what you are used to. This is a great opportunity to practice some economy with supplies. What will give me the most mileage? What are the essentials? What are those comfort/favourite tools I can’t do without? It is challenging to make these choices and I can’t say that I enjoy making them. For the sake of sharing, I thought I would give you a sneak peak at what is in my current art travel supply kit.
Travel art supplies .jpg

A. Traveler’s notebook (Field sketchbook)
B. Embroidery scissors
C. Parker black ink
D. Container of krill*
E. Pentalic sketchbook (for tiny drawings)
F. Pencil sharpener
G. Homemade pen
H. #4 & #6 watercolour brushes
I. Found water dish (mussel shell)
J. Pentel .25 ball point pen
K. Water brush
L. TWISBI fountain pen
M. Accordion sketchbook (illustrated map of experiences)
N. Watercolour sketchbook
O. Water (ocean)
P. Schmincke case with watercolours and gouache
Q. 4B & 5B pencils
R. Blank watercolour postcard pack 
*I have been carrying around this container of krill for 6 weeks and can’t bare to part with them. I am not totally clear on my reasoning, but they are now part my art supply kit.

When life gives you lemons…

It can be disheartening when things don’t work out as planned. Things haven’t been going exactly as I expected. I had a plan. I always make plans. But sometimes plans don’t pan out.

Step one: find a book about whales of New Zealand

Step two: buy ink for my fountain pen

Step three: make the work

I thought that it would be easy to find a book about whales at a second-hand book shop–just like at home. Well, I was wrong. “Hmmm…I don’t think we have any native whales” the lady at a book store told me. Huh. Shelf upon shelf of books about birds, spiders, penguins…. no whales. Nothing. 

Ink. It is probably one of the simplest art supplies. It is basic. I finally found an art store and bought a shiny, new bottle of fountain pen ink. The long anticipated moment arrived, I carefully opened the bottle, filled the bladder of my pen and began to draw in my new sketchbook. Nothing. Scratch. Scratch. It was drying to the nib.  

Just make the work. It sounds simple. But there are so many things that can get in the way: not enough time, no work space, no source material, distractions. My biggest hang up has been the lack of a working surface (like a desk or a table). Solution? Work smaller, work in segments, work with what you’ve got.

If you don’t succeed, try and try and try and try again. To be honest it can be frustrating when things don’t work out like I want them to. I have been learning a lot about the importance of being flexible, perseverance and the value of finding alternative solutions. I ended up finding a lovely book about New Zealand whales (yes, there are whales that live off New Zealand) at a visitor information center in a tiny, coastal town a few days ago. I returned the bottle of ink and bought a lovely bottle of Parker ink at a book store. I also wanted to find a dip pen for the ink, but couldn’t find one anywhere. After a few failed attempts looking for a pen I accepted my defeat. Thanks to Jill Ehlert, a dear friend of mine, I remembered her showing me how to create a dip pen out of a stick, some tape and a pop can. DIY pen…success!

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I feel like this is true with art as well. It is one of the results of traveling and making work. Suddenly you don’t have the materials you are used to, your supplies are very limited and you are working in an unfamiliar environment. While it can be frustrating at the time, it is an important reminder that creativity is the key to art. And in the making of art you also need to be creative. Creative in your approach. Ultimately the end result doesn’t even matter. It is the journey. It is about pushing your comfort level, experimenting and making new discoveries.





My Visit to the University of Otago’s Marine Science Department

Yesterday afternoon I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Dr. Will Rayment of the University of Otago’s Marine Science Department. We met Dr. Rayment in his office. He shared with us about his work, answered our questions and showed us some field equipment, ID photos and drone footage.

University of Otago research vessel

Research vessel Polaris II (photo from University of Otago website)

The University of Otago has been conducting some fascinating, long-term research focusing on key New Zealand cetaceans. Some specific species that Dr. Rayment mentioned were the endangered Hector’s Dolphin, the Bottlenose Dolphins of Doubtful Sound and the Southern Right Whales.

Hectors Dolphin

Hector’s Dolphins (photo by Dennis Buurman)

The cetaceans that live off New Zealand’s coasts are similar to some species we have in Canada–but different. In B.C. the Southern Resident Killer Whale population gets most of the media/conservation attention because they are so endangered. In New Zealand it is the Hector’s Dolphin that commonly shows up on google searches and Instagram posts. The Hector’s Dolphin is only found in New Zealand. There are two types: the Hector’s Dolphin of the Southern Island (population estimate 15,000) and the Maui Dolphin of the Northern Island (population estimate 57-75). Both creatures have uniquely rounded dorsal fins. These dolphins are born with perfectly shaped fins on their backs. As they get older these fins become scarred and battered, allowing researchers to identify and keep track of individuals. Dr. Rayment explained that fishing nets are the main danger to these little cetaceans.

Southern Right Whales

Southern Right Whales (image from drone video by the University of Otago’s Marine Science Department, link in text)

I was very interested to learn about Dr. Rayment’s research of Southern Right Whales. Unlike the Right Whales of the northern hemisphere this population is making a comeback (increasing about 8% annually). Right Whales got their name from whalers. Calling them the “right” whale to hunt because they are rich in oil and not too fast. As you can imagine, this species was decimated by the whaling industry (in both hemispheres). We asked Dr. Rayment why the population here is doing so much better than their northern cousins. He said it is likely to do with the lack of shipping traffic in the area. Ship strike incidents are very rare here.  In 2008 he began researching these whales in the Auckland Islands (an uninhabited archipelago 465 km south of the South Island). These islands are a breeding haven for the Southern Right Whales and an ideal place to collect data on the population. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Rayment’s research on Southern Right Whales check out this article: Making Things Right. Also you can click here for a short video of drone footage of Southern Right Whales compiled by the university.

Southern Resident Killer Whale carrying her dead baby. Photo by Taylor Shedd

Southern Resident Killer Whale carrying her dead baby (photo by Taylor Shedd)

As I was browsing whale related news stories this morning, I came across an interesting article about a New Zealand Bottlenose Dolphin displaying a similar grieving behavior to J35 off Vancouver Island this past summer (click here for the full story). It is interesting to learn that other members of the dolphin family have similar grieving rituals. I can’t help but see connections between the cetaceans here with the ones at home.



Searching for Penguins

It was still dark this morning as I rummaged around for my alarm clock. Beep. Beep. Beep. 5:30am. I put on the clothes I had laid out the night before and went to the kitchen to make oatmeal. Tea always tastes best when its early. The people we are staying with asked if we would like to join them as they do a penguin survey for The Halo Project (click here to visit their website). We arrived at the beach just in time for sunrise and low tide.


Rhys (The Halo Project Manager), Niki, Jo and a few other team members and biologists preformed the survey. We split into two teams. The object was to investigate the coastline of a local peninsula, looking for burrows and evidence of little blue penguins and to count the ones we see. One team hiking in from the south and one from the north. It was more of an adventure than I expected. Climbing over jagged rocks, wading through the surf, scrambling up cliffs, walking through caves and hiking through tall grass.

Little blue penguins are the smallest type of penguin. They are native to New Zealand but sadly they are on the decline. The purpose of this survey was to find out where the penguins are living and gain a better understand of how to take steps to protect them. These penguins often live in small rock caves. On this beach we found quite a few burrows (see pictures above)–some occupied and some not. We also found lots of penguin tracks and a couple eggs.

As we continued along the cliffs we were pleasantly surprised to come across more interesting wildlife, including: sea lions, spotted shags and a pair of Hector’s dolphins. I was very excited about the dolphin sighting as it is my first cetacean sighting here in New Zealand. It is also a dolphin that I have heard about because it is quite endangered. They are easy to recognize because their dorsal fin is rounded.

We met the other survey team at the halfway point and compared notes before making the treck back. In total we saw thirteen little blue penguins–a success! I feel lucky to have the opportunity to witness the work The Halo Project is doing here and get to see little blue penguins in the wild. I learned that it takes a lot of effort to cover even a small amount of coastline when looking for creatures and have gained an even bigger respect for the men and women that do this work in all kinds of weather.

We were back at the farm before 11am and spent the afternoon taking care of sheep. I am going to sleep well tonight!


We have now moved down the South Island in New Zealand to the Otago region of New Zealand (yay for having a vehicle). We have been working in the mornings (WWOOFing) and then exploring in the afternoons. It really is a great exchange. Not only are we getting to experience some interesting life styles and help out on the farms, but we have also been able to stay in some pretty spectacular places.

The Otago region is my favourite area of New Zealand. Largely because of the coast lines. Rolling, green hills come to dramatic ends, rocky cliff faces plunge down to the sea and the white sand beaches are so fine that your feet make squeaking sounds across its’ surface. When we went to the sea yesterday I found something that I wasn’t expecting to find. Something that I have grown quite fond of lately but hadn’t seen yet in person. Krill. I knew it instantly. These little guys had been washed up, left along the high tide line and dried by the sun. Since creating my Swarm installation at the fifty fifty arts collective I have been especially keen to see these little guys in person. Unfortunately they wen’t alive anymore, but they did make for excellent drawing subjects. Reminder to self: when at the beach always remember to look at your feet.

My new old kiwi car

Hello from New Zealand!

We have sublet our apartment, sold our car, given up our jobs and are currently living out of backpacks. This weeks’ goal was to buy a car. We have now walked to many districts in Christchurch and added at least 80 kilometers of wear to our shoes (as well as a few blisters and sunburns). It has been exhausting and there were times when I felt like we would never get out of the city. But today was a happy day as we are now proud owners of a 1997 kiwi car. A bonus is that my very minimal knowledge of vehicles has grown significantly.

I am looking forward to what will be instore for us over the next few months. The landscape is inspiring, the nature is exciting and strange and I cannot wait to see the ocean! Along with focusing on my art practice and learning about the local whales and conservation/research that is happening here we are also excited to spend time volunteering on organic farms.

Coming from a place where whales have also played a significant roll in its history, culture, and development it will be interesting to see if the parallels and similarities between New Zealand and British Columbia.

NZ tidbit of the day: Did you know that New Zealand boasts 38 species of cetaceans?

NZ whales

Sound of the Sea

onc_octopus_logo_rgbA few days ago I found myself walking through the doors of Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) on my way to a meeting with Tom Dakin, Sensor Technology Development Officer. ONC is an initiative by the University of Victoria and monitors the west, east and north coasts of Canada. As you may well guess, a large focus in their research is our local marine environment off Vancouver Island. I met Dakin at the opening of my recent exhibition and I was honoured to be invited to ONC to hear about what he is researching. Dakin’s area of expertise revolves around underwater acoustics. ONC maintains a network of hydrophones (underwater sound recording devises). With this equipment they can study the calls of marine creatures, passing vessels and even aircrafts! These sounds are recorded both audibly and visually as a graph (see examples below). The graphs are strikingly beautiful in their colour, repetition and pulsing rhythm. Click here for examples of hydrophone recordings by ONC.

It is a well known fact that sound travels easily through water, but I never realized just how far it travels. In our meeting I learned that some large vessels traveling through the Strait of Georgia may produce sound that reaches almost the entire way from Vancouver Island to the mainland–even if you can’t hear the ship above the water. The hydrophones off Southern Vancouver Island can even detect earthquakes from Alaska and across the Pacific. Apparently our Salish Sea is quite an epicenter of sound. The rumbling and creaking of vessels as they pass through our waterways mix with calls, clicks and whistles of whales, making it difficult to distinguish who is who.

Credit: photo courtesy of Mark Malleson from 'What the Deep Sea Sounds Like'A thought crossed my mind as I was sitting with Dakin in his office space at ONC. That this type of meeting has been going on for hundreds (if not thousands) of years–science and art being brought together. Explorers, biologists, navigators, astrologers, artists. I feel privileged to be part of this conversation and I am excited to see what direction it will take my work. There is nothing quite like the thrill of learning something new about something you enjoy. This was my experience of meeting Dakin and Ocean Networks Canada. If you are interested in Dakin’s work and underwater acoustics, you should check out this article by Live Science.

Hello 2019

This time of year always makes me feel thoughtful, reflective and thankful. It has been a full year for me–filled with new challenges and experiences. This time last year I was in the middle of a stack of paperwork and phone calls trying to figure out how to apply for a Russian visa and how to bring an art exhibition in my carry on bag. When I reflect on this year one of the things that stands out to me the most are the people that I met along the way: from the exhibition in Russia, to the Sooke Fine Art Show, to the Moss Street Market and my current exhibition at the fifty fifty arts collective. This is one of the most surprising things I have learned from having an art practice. I have made more friends and met more people through art than any other way. But really, isn’t this the whole point of art? To be seen. And in being seen–bringing people together.

It has been a blessing to spend time back on the island again, enjoying favourite places, visiting friends and staying with family. Especially now, as we are preparing to spend a few months in New Zealand working and creating art, it makes me so glad to reconnect with the Victoria arts community and loved ones.

These images are of a grey wire whale I made for Jill Ehlert. I met Jill when she gave an artist talk at the Vancouver Island School of Art a few years ago. I immediately connected with her work and we quickly became friends. Jill and I share a common awe of the ocean and creatures that live there. She has been focusing on the intertidal zone in her work for many years. Her knowledge and familiarity of the subject matter is very apparent. I enjoy visiting her in her studio and I almost always see something unexpected! Her bright studio is adorned with beautiful, twisted pieces of seaweeds, artworks, stacks of interesting books, open sketchbooks, works in progress and tiny treasures. Research is a large part of her practice and yet her forms aren’t stiff or restricted, but full of life–straddling the line between representation and abstraction. If you like the ocean, you will love Jill’s work! I highly recommend checking out her lovely website here.

Speaking of art bringing people together… if you are in the Victoria area, please stop by the Leviathanic Allusion exhibition before it comes down at the end of the week. I will be there on the last day from 12-4pm on Friday, January 25 and would be happy to visit and give a tour of the work. Everyone welcome!