11 Jul 2018

Whaling history in New Zealand's Cook Strait: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision archives

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:35 pm on 11 July 2018

A southern right whale has been delighting camera-wielding onlookers hoping to get a shot in Wellington, but recordings from history show whaling was a very different hunt until quite recently.

The whale, first spotted last Tuesday, and postponed the city's first Matariki fireworks display.

The Southern Right Whale in Wellington Harbour

The Southern Right Whale in Wellington Harbour Photo: Maritime NZ/Mark Dittmer

The southern right species was nearly hunted to extinction but the population is, thankfully, slowly but surely growing and returning to New Zealand shorelines

Wellington's whale is thought to have left the harbour this morning, and headed out to Cook Strait.

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision's Sarah Johnston says in the past that would have been dangerous territory, as the strait was hunted right up until 1964.

It would have been a frenzy of activity as whalers sought to spear the massive mammal with harpoons and drag it back to the mainland in small boats called chasers.

"Whaling didn't stop because people said 'oh this is terrible and we love whales', it actually stopped because of a lack of whales," she says.

"They weren't really protected until the conservation movement in the 1970s and then there was marine mammals protection act passed in 1968.

"Even back in 1919 someone actually shot, with a rifle I presume, a whale in the harbour from Petone wharf.

"We have a lot of recordings in the archives showing quite different attitudes in the archives.

The first recording is from 1959 from radio announcer Molly McNabb on one of the Perano family's whaling station boats in Cook Strait, joined by one of the family members:

"We were luckier than we expected to be because we were allowed to stay on the mothership.

"Normally they only have two on the chaser, one at the gun and one at the engine, and of course they have got a harpoon gun that they shoot the whale into.

"They play the whale on the harpoon just as you would a trout.

"Thar she blows!"

"The whale has been sighted now and it won't be very long until the chasers make a start on trying to catch it.

"The whale is about half a mile away from us now, and it's a humpback.

"This is the most exciting kind of fishing I've ever been on."

The second recording is a documentary from 1996 about some of the very last New Zealand whaling gunners, Charlie and his son Joe Heberley.

"People say to me 'how could you kill such a beautiful animal, didn't you feel guilty?'

"When they ask me that I always say well, listen, 'what did you have for your Sunday dinner?' and they say why, and I say 'was it the lamb, or did you have chicken?'

"They say 'well, yes, we had chicken, and I say what's more beautiful than a nice little fluffy chicken.

"I'm not guilty, it was a job, it was a business. To us, they were a challenge."

"It was a traditional sport, it was in their family, and it was three months a year that everyone looked forward to.

"The moment a whale was spotted …. You'd grab your lunch tin and tear down to the lookout and get down onto the whale chasing, and you were all hyped up.

"It's probably like All Blacks going onto the rugby field, on a test match or something like that.

"There was a lot of danger involved but we coped with it.

"I think anyone who was involved in the whaling industry, the younger ones, it was their ambition to get on a chaser whether driving or gunning.

"There was a lot of ones that would probably give their right arm to be a whale gunner."

Charlie and Joe also spoke about witnessing the dropping whale numbers:

"We were devastated."

"As time wore on, we knew that whaling was going to become history."

"There was a lot of devastated whalers. We knew that the Japanese and Russians had got in and slaughtered the pod of whales that were feeding the New Zealand coast.

"We knew by the numbers that we had spotted coming in through Cook Strait.

"The Japanese and the Russians, they weren't satisfied slaughtering them down in the Antarctic, they started coming up and taking them on the New Zealand coast.

"We got blamed here in New Zealand for killing the whales out. Well let me give you an example. In 1960 was the record number of whales taken in New Zealand. That year Cook Strait whalers took 226 whales in the season.

"That season the Japanese and the Russians took 42,000 whales down the Antarctic, and that's only what they reported, and a lot of experience we had in some of their reporting there was a lot more than that caught.

"One of their factory ships called in here on a courtesy call and we went on board and had a look. That ship had 22 chasers with it, servicing her, she could process 70 whales in 24 hours.

"I think you're going to see them breed up but I think it's going to take a long time."

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