Our Changing World

Thursday 25 December 2014, with Alison Ballance, Ruth Beran & Veronika Meduna

On This Programme

Sound Recordist Les McPherson

By Alison Ballance

Sound recordist Les McPherson in front of his sound archive which contains thousands of bird calls.

Sound recordist Les McPherson in front of his sound archive which contains thousands of bird calls.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

In 1969 Les McPherson made his first sound recording - of house sparrows in his Christchurch back garden. He was living on a busy corner, and as well as sparrows the 8'-long recording features traffic, wind knocking his parabolic reflector against its tripod as well as his neighbour shouting at her kids. But that initial foray into recording bird calls still holds pride of place as Track 1 on CD1 in what has grown to become the McPherson Natural History Unit Sound Archive. Forty five years later the archive now includes almost a 1000 CDs containing more than 27,000 recordings, primarily of New Zealand birds but also many South Pacific birds and a few insects as well.

Although his recording trips have taken him to the Chatham islands, islands of the Hauraki Gulf and the titi islands near Stewart Island, Les McPherson, who is now retired and living in Ashburton, says he is not an outdoors person. The bird recording has been a weekend and evening hobby, and his day job was packing and dispatching women's lingerie.

Many of the recordings in the archive were recorded by Les himself, but once he set himself the goal of having a recording of every bird featured on the New Zealand checklist he realised he would to beg or barter recordings with other people. He has developed relationships with universities, Crown Research Institutes, scientists and ornithologists around the world, and is now just a few birds shy of his goal. He rates seabirds, especially those that breed on remote islands, as one of his greatest challenges, and rues the fact that he is still missing dabchicks and Bounty Island shags.

Our Changing World producer Alison Ballance visited the Bounty Islands shortly after recording this interview with Les about his recording career, and attempted to get some shag calls for Les. But while she managed to record a few grunts, on the whole what she found was that Bounty Island shags are curious but very quiet.

Many of Les's sound recordings feature on the New Zealand Birds Online website, and in 2014 Katrina Batten at Radio New Zealand worked with Les to widen the diversity of bird calls that play on Morning Report each day. The original Morning Report bird calls, which began playing in the late 1960s, were provided by the late Johnny Kendrick, whom Les credits as an early inspiration.

The Nga Manu bird collection on the Radio New Zealand website includes all the Morning Report bird calls as well as bird stories that have played on Our Changing World, along with Hugh Roberton's regular bird slot on This Way Up.


A World With Whales

by Veronika Meduna veronika.meduna@radionz.co.nz

The Perano whaling station operated until December 1964.

The Perano whaling station operated until December 1964.

Photo: RNZ / Veronika Meduna

On 21 December 1964, a team of commercial whalers caught New Zealand’s last humpback whale at the historic Perano whaling station, at the entrance to Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds.

Joe Heberley was a commercial whaler until the industry shut down in 1964. He now helps the Department of Conservation to count whales in Cook Strait.

Joe Heberley, pictured here with a hand harpoon, was a commercial whaler until the industry shut down in 1964. He now helps the Department of Conservation to count whales in Cook Strait.

Photo: RNZ / Veronika Meduna

Joe Heberley was among the men who worked at the station until the industry finally shut down. Five generations of Heberleys had hunted whales, mostly on Great Barrier Island. Joe and his father Charlie were the last.

Half a century later, Joe still remembers the excitement when one of the chasers, whose job it was to spot whales from a look-out hut, raised a flag to let the rest of the team know that a whale was coming into he sounds. “The guys would know to get steam up on the boiler,” he says. They also knew that theirs was a dangerous job.

'Dad had several accidents. The whales knew you were there, especially when they were wounded. Dad got kicked off the boat and they had a hell of a job trying to get him back in because the whale was just thrashing.' _Joe Heberley

Once the whale – mostly humpback whales during the last years of the industry – had been hauled up a processing ramp, it had to be cut up into small pieces. The bay was red with blood. Birds, sharks and eels came in to get their share. The men pulled the whale cuts across into the boilers with hand-held hooks and "then you’d turn the steam on and cook it all up like in a big pressure cooker until the oil floated on top”.

Whaling didn’t stop during the war years and none of the whalers went to war because the industry was too important for the economy.

Tools of the whaling industry: Massive boilers (left) were used to reduce whale blubber to oil. The central image shows a hand-held harpoon, the tip of a 'bomb', a sperm whale tooth and humpback baleen. On the right, large bags were used to package dog food made from whale meat.

Tools of the whaling industry: Massive boilers (left) were used to reduce whale blubber to oil. The central image shows a hand-held harpoon, the tip of a 'bomb', a sperm whale tooth and humpback baleen. On the right, large bags were used to package dog food made from whale meat.

Photo: RNZ / Veronika Meduna

Half a century later, Joe Heberley and some of his whaling mates help the Department of Conservation during its annual whale count in Cook Strait – and it’s just as competitive as in the old days.

'Your blood boils [when we spot a whale] because it’s another one we’ve found. Everybody has got their own chair and, those are the rules, when you spot a whale and lay claim to it you put a notch in your chair.'

Nick Gerritsen, an investor and  business catalyst, is one of the driving forces behind the National Whale Centre.

Nick Gerritsen, an investor and business catalyst, is one of the driving forces behind the National Whale Centre.

Photo: RNZ / Veronika Meduna

To mark the 50th anniversary of the end of commercial whaling in New Zealand and to celebrate the natural and cultural history of whales, the National Whale Centre has opened in Picton last month. Nick Gerritsen, a local business investor with a focus on sustainability projects, is one of the driving forces behind the centre and describes it as one of the most rewarding things he’s done. “There’s something about creating a space and having all this generosity and forgotten stories flow into it.”

The focus is on whales, with whaling a “recent, in relative terms, blip in the history that had a massive impact”.

Nick says Marlborough is in a unique position, with locals who started out as young men whaling but are now part of a team of whale spotters working for conservation.

From an economic perspective, Nick sees whaling as one of the first global industries. “We get all excited about globalisation today, but actually there is a strong argument that New Zealand, from a contemporary European economic perspective, has very much been global from the very beginning.”

One could even argue that New Zealand’s fashion industry had its beginnings with whaling. In one of the books that was donated to the centre (the only English translation of a French surgeon’s journal, written while he was on a whaler in New Zealand’s waters from 1837 to 1846, and edited by his friend Alexandre Dumas) describes that the initial engagement between whalers and local iwi was all about exchange.

'After a short time Maori women began to insist that the whalers brought them the latest fashions from Europe. There’s a delightful chapter in there about the French whaler bringing the latest Parisian fabrics down and the whalers, after their day of killing whales, becoming dress makers and making dresses as gifts for the Maori women in the village.' _Nick Gerritsen

Among the centre’s exhibits and artefacts is a quote by naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach, who wrote in 1843 that “the shore whalers … have felled the tree to obtain the fruit”, recognising the importance of sustainability. For Nick Gerritsen this has provided an important point of reflection. “How come our society forgets things?” he asks. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that if you kill all whales your industry will be unsustainable. If we substitute whales for oil fields or coal mines now, we have the same argument that we are in a closed system.”


Coming up on Our Changing World - Thursday 1 January

In our summer science series of highlights from 2014 we hear about 'Dinosaur Lady' Joan Wiffen, an egg rescue for rowi - our rarest kiwi, a science communication student story about legalising marijuana, a community cockle count, and a web-only science communication student podcast on genetically modified organisms.