Marine Mammals

New Zealand is a world hotspot for biodiversity, with 17,000 known species and half of these being endemic. Experts estimate up to 85% of New Zealand wildlife could be in the ocean. Our actions, at sea and on land, are putting pressure the ocean. This is threatening many species with extinction. About 22% of marine mammals are at risk of extinction. 

© Will Rayment /WWF

Māui and Hector's dolphins

Hector’s and Māui dolphins are taonga species. These beautiful, tiny marine mammals only live in Aotearoa New Zealand’s coastal waters.

The dolphins are among the world’s smallest cetaceans, easily recognised by their distinctive dorsal fin shaped like a Mickey Mouse ear.

Hector’s dolphins are found only around New Zealand’s South Island. While the Māui dolphin lives in shallow coastal waters along the North Island’s western shores.

With the Māui dolphin on the brink of extinction, WWF has for many years campaigned to save these unique marine mammals.

Current programmes include:

Sightings validation

In collaboration with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Cawthron Institute we run a programme which validates all Hector's and Māui dolphin sightings which are submitted to DOC. 

Māui dolphin drone programme

In collaboration with MAUI63, Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and Moana we developed an AI-powered tracking drone to autonomously find, follow, and uniquely identify Māui and Hector's dolphins.

©Yuin Fong

Leopard seals

The leopard seal is a New Zealand native marine mammal, classified as At Risk. The animals here are a small proportion of a much larger population in Antarctic waters.

Leopard seals were previously considered Non-resident Native – Vagrant until research, including public reporting of sightings, established the species’ long-term and widespread residence in New Zealand. 

We don't know how many of them make their home in New Zealand waters, and sometimes cities. In fact there is a lot we don't know about leopard seals.

Which is why we are collaborating with to research the behaviour, distribution, range and threats of this marine mammal. 

Enabling Citizen Science

Research is a major focus of our work on marine mammals. In the Department of Conservation's most recent assessment of threat classification for marine mammals (45 species in 2019), 67% percent were classified as ‘Data Deficient’. That is, there was insufficient information is available to assess their conservation status.

With funding for marine species research incredibly limited in New Zealand, the public can play an important role. 

In collaboration with MAUI63 and a number of other organisations, we are developing a marine mammal sightings app named "SeaSpotter" which can be used by citizen scientists, tourism companies and researchers to log sightings around New Zealand.

The successful use of citizen science data in the work, was the inspiration behind SeaSpotter app. Citizens around Aotearoa sent their photographs and sightings information which was used to identify unique leopard seals occupying our shores and gave enough information to reclassify them from Vagrant to Resident. 

We knew that if this could be done for leopard seals, then it can also be done for other marine mammal species.

Become a citizen scientist

Bryde's Whale

New Zealand’s Bryde’s (pronounced “BROO-dus”) whales can be found between the North and East capes and in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park — one of only three places in the world where they live year-round!

Bryde’s whales in Aotearoa are Threatened (Nationally Critical) — our country’s highest threat level. Scientists estimate there are only 135 left. 


Key fish stocks have declined by over 50% - leaving little for Bryde's whales to eat.

Kina barrens - areas where there is an unusual amount of kina (sea urchins), and an absence of kelp - are a common site in the Hauraki Gulf. These areas are caused by overfishing of key predators of kina, like kōura (crayfish) and tāmure (snapper).

Bryde's whales and other marine taonga are getting entangled in or ingesting plastic, causing suffocation, starvation, and drowning.

Fish, whales and other marine species are eating huge sums of harmful microplastics, which are working their way up through the foodchain and into the kaimoana that we eat.

Bottom trawling is having a devastating impact on marine life, and releasing carbon stored in the seafloor.

Land activities, such as forestry, farming, mining, draining of wetlands and urban development are dumping huge amounts of sediment into the Gulf. This suffocates the seabed and severely impacts estuaries, which are nurseries for juvenile fish and resting places for migratory birds.

As climate change worsens, higher temperatures, sea level rise, ocean acidification and decreased resilience of ecosystems to withstand change are adversely affecting marine life.


The Hauraki Gulf is home to the Bryde's Whale

Help save the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park

Sign our petition to ban destructive bottom contact fishing methods in the Gulf.