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New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch

Marine Mammal Management

Credit: Simon Bruty for SailGP
Setting A New Standard

For Marine Mammal Management

SailGP is deeply committed to protecting the environments in which it operates and has rigorous marine mammal protection protocols in place for every city it visits, including Ōtautahi, Christchurch. Powered by nature, the marine environment is the foundation of SailGP operations and the league recognises its shared responsibility for protecting Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour and the species who live there, including the Upokohue / Hector’s dolphin.

What considerations have been made for the protection of marine mammals in Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour and who has been involved in the planning?

SailGP under the guidance of Te Roopū Tiaki Whakaraupō Advisory Group, has developed an industry-leading marine mammal management plan (MMMP) for its inaugural New Zealand event, in partnership with Te Hapū ō Ngāti Wheke Rāpaki, manawhenua and mana moana over Whakaraupō. The Marine Mammal Management Plan (MMMP) has been collated by Enviser Limited, with information on event logistics provided by SailGP and technical expertise provided by Cawthron Institute.

Members of Te Roopū Tiaki Whakaraupō Advisory Group provided valued input and reviewed the MMMP throughout its development. This includes representatives from Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke Rāpaki (Chair of the Advisory Group), Department of Conservation (DOC), Environment Canterbury, University of Otago, Christchurch City Council (Banks Peninsula Community Board), Live Ocean, Lyttelton Port Company and Black Cat Cruises. Observers of the Advisory Group also include ChristchurchNZ, Department of Conservation, Enviser Ltd, Cawthron Institute and SailGP.

As with any body of experts, a range of advice was debated and discussed in meetings, with members providing scientific, cultural, environmental and local advice. All recommendations developed by this Advisory Group were submitted to the ChristchurchNZ Board of Directors to support their acceptance of the plan subject to approval of final additions.

What mitigations will be in place during the event on Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour?

The MMMP for the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch is bespoke to the unique environment of Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour, outlining a range of mitigations to be implemented during training and racing days in March 2023. Over and above these proactive measures, the operational plan also includes step-by-step protocols should a dolphin be sighted in the vicinity.

On-land surveys - The unique geology of Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour with its steep sides and narrow channels, makes it an ideal location for the use of on-land observation stations. Suitably trained Hector’s Dolphin Observers (HDO)s will be on continuous watch at ten elevated land-based observation stations positioned on both sides of the harbour with binoculars, tasked with finding and tracking the presence of any marine mammals in the area. Additional volunteers will be used to help and assist HDOs at each station. Teams will commence observing the race area four hours before the scheduled start of on-water activities on practice and race days and continue throughout the race and for a period of 30 minutes after cessation of on-water activities.

On-water surveys & observation - On-water transect surveys will also be undertaken by two boats, commencing no earlier than two hours before training and racing. The surveys will determine if and where any marine mammals are in the harbour and will help inform visual tracking prior to and during training and racing. At least two experienced observers will search the area from the bow or an elevated position on each boat using binoculars when necessary, recording GPS positions, group sizes and direction of movement of any marine mammals communicated to land-based observation teams. On-water observation crews will remain on the racecourse throughout on-water activities.

Passive and active acoustic monitoring - Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered acoustic listening will continuously monitor for the echolocation of dolphins during the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix, reporting detections in real time. Developed by Styles Group Acoustics, the system has a detection range spanning hundreds of metres - meaning dolphins can be detected well outside the course to proactively mitigate risk. The system has been trained on more than 100,000 hours of acoustic data recorded from Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour over the last five years, with a detection accuracy of more than 95 per cent in all weather conditions.

Aerial surveys - An AI-powered tracking drone will also be used to find, follow and identify any dolphins in the vicinity of training and racing. Developed by MAUI63, the drone will survey Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour while taking approximately 1700 photos per hour to be uploaded and analysed by AI to detect dolphins in the vicinity. Findings will be uploaded to the marine management platform in real time, enabling on-water operations teams to modify their plans if required.

Marine mammal sighting apps & informal observers - In addition to the comprehensive observation methods above, all water users, including teams, spectators and course marshalls, will play a part in monitoring for marine mammals in the vicinity. Pre-event briefings will encourage spectator boats to use the Sea Spotter App, a citizen science tool which enables users to take and upload photos of marine mammals - in particular their dorsal fin - to be analysed by AI with the exact location pinned. For the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch, the use of the Sea Spotter App, will enable sightings to be shared instantly with on-water operations teams during training and racing. Support vessels and official spectators will also report sightings via VHF radio.

Underwater acoustic deterrent devices (ADD) - The use of an underwater acoustic deterrent device (ADD) is proposed as an extra layer of protection, activated only when no dolphins are acoustically or visually detected within or near the race area. ADDs are commonly used to keep marine mammals away from dangerous situations, such as very noisy construction projects or fishing nets. This mitigation is currently being investigated further and may be implemented during the event next March.

What happens when the racing is over?

ChristchurchNZ and SailGP have a joint aspiration to create legacy outcomes for the Upokohue / Hector’s dolphins as part of hosting the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix, which includes raising global awareness of the much loved, nationally-vulnerable species as well as the implementation of new or enhanced technology to detect and / or track Hector’s dolphins. Specific legacy benefits include:

  • Raising global awareness of the Upokohue / Hector’s dolphins through broadcast and media opportunities.
  • Training, capability and capacity building for trained marine mammal observers as well as local volunteers, including more than 20 people in observer roles who will receive location, species and event-specific training from marine mammal experts, as well as in introduction to manawhenua values and tikanga.
  • Fast tracking the development of new technology as a direct result of hosting the event, including real-time underwater acoustic surveillance using a custom-made algorithm to detect Upokohue / Hector’s Dolphin clicks. The algorithm incorporates 100,000 hours of data from Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour with acoustic data from the 36th America’s Cup, considering both high-speed foiling boats and engine and depth sounds of support and spectator vessels, to adjust for noise contamination and ensure findings are fit-for-purpose and relevant to future on-water events.
  • Conservation benefits to Upokohue / Hector’s dolphins through host city purpose initiatives.
  • Educating the boating public on best practice marine mammal observation and reporting methods, including use of the Sea Spotter App, in briefings to all on-water users, including teams, the spectator fleet and other user groups.
  • The creation and implementation of an industry-leading MMMP to set the benchmark for future iterations of SailGP around the world, held in the vicinity of dolphins.

Where can I find out more?

Additional information about the MMMP for the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch will be shared in due course, including a technical executive summary of the plan to be published on this page. SailGP together with ChristchurchNZ is also committed to sharing its learnings following the inaugural event and before SailGP returns to Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour in 2025. 

For Additional Information

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