The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 12 (March 1, 1938.)
Whaling in New Zealand Waters — “There She Blows.”
At first glance the small Maori village near Mangaroa, on the shores of the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, has nothing to distinguish it from the typical native settlement. Everything appears normal about the nikau whares, with their corrugated iron chimneys, as the wahines engage in the purely feminine pursuits of washing clothes, cooking and gossiping. Everywhere roam sturdy brown children and innumerable dogs. The men are busy about their tasks—some ploughing the fertile loam of the rich Bay of Plenty lands, others, perhaps, in a small group discussing the merits of the outlaw horse which one of their number is in process of breaking in.
Suddenly the quiet, almost sleepy, appearance of the village is changed as if by the stroke of a magic wand, and somnolent figures are galvanised into action. “Coo-ee, coo-ee,” a call finding its origin perhaps in the hardy Australian whalers of a century ago, comes faintly down the wind. Every eye turns toward the headland from which the cry originated and where a long manuka pole with flag attached is now waving vigorously. Every tongue repeats the call, which is bandied around and about the settlement, mingling with the yelping of startled dogs and the squealing of pigs in a startling cacophony of sound.
Horses harnessed to ploughs and mustered sheep are left to fend for themselves. Cows being bailed for milking must await the ministrations of others’ hands. The everyday tasks of the native are forgotten, and, animated with a single thought, young and old, strong and infirm, rush to the beach. That stirring coo-ee can have but one meaning—whales in the bay!
On the beach lies a sturdy whaleboat, some 20 ft. long, similar to a ship's boat. When the crew of nine, the strongest men of the settlement, already long picked in anticipation of the incident, have mustered, men, women and children lend a hand at the launching. Down the white, sandy beach she is rolled and into the gently breaking Pacific swell. Erect at the stern stands an old chieftain whose ancestors before him have hunted whales in similar fashion. He, of all the crew, is the only man with wrinkled, tattooed face. The rowers, all magnificent specimens of their race, bend to their task willingly. Through the narrow opening in the reef the boat flies, on toward the spot where the whale was seen spouting, the old helmsman shouting advice and encouragement as the muscles of the oarsmen ripple on naked brown torsos.
Whales at that time of the year are apparently content to laze and play through these waters, delayed perhaps by the slowness of their calves, but the crew must not dawdle if a kill is to be made. Eager eyes scan the sea for a glimpse of the quarry. Frantic cries from the wahines at the lookout station seem to indicate that the boat has gone too far. It is put about and presently the whale spouts again. “There she blows,” cries every excited member of the crew. Getting into their swing, every brown, perspiring body moving in a symphony of perfect rhythm, the old boat shoots forward. All the excitement and frenzy of the haka is written on the grimacing face of the chieftain. The order, “stand up ready,” is given to the harpooner in the bow, and at the right moment the barbed steel is driven home with all the force at the command of the most powerful man in the pa.
Then the fun begins. With the rope whizzing over the gunwale the whale sounds deeply. Then, returning to the surface, it makes off at great speed. Now the rope is made fast and the intrepid whalers, preparing for a war of attrition, are towed page 13 out to sea in the wake of the whale. After a period, dependent upon the nature of the harpoon thrust and the stamina of the whale, the victim begins to show signs of fatigue. The boat is hauled steadily up to the whale and the harpooner makes a thrust for the heart with the first of three lances kept for the purpose. Amid a terrific turmoil from the whale's thrashing and lashing flukes, the boat is hurriedly backed away. If the lance has not struck a vital spot the quarry is off again and the whole cycle must be repeated until, at the second or third attempt, the lance pierces the heart.
The sport over, the arduous task of towing home the catch begins. In its run, the whale may have dragged the boat many miles from the shore, and sometimes two days are occupied in the slow return journey.
Many and varied have been the tactics employed in the hunting and killing of whales since the days when it was first realised what profit could be made by the capture of these huge mammals. The Maoris use methods which have survived unchanged for a century, but in other parts of New Zealand, all the modern refinements of the industry are employed. The Perano brothers, of Picton, whose whaling ground is Tory Channel, were the first in the Dominion, if not in the world, to abandon rowing boats and hand harpooning. Sometimes a whole day was required to make a kill, the victim eventually dying probably from loss of blood flowing from many gashes in its body. The Peranos conceived the idea of employing fast launches, armed with harpoon guns, to pursue the quarry.
When the geyser of water that betrays the spouting whale is sighted, the speedboat, manned by engineer and gunner, dashes in pursuit, cutting through the water at a speed of 30 knots. Hump-back whales generally come to the surface to spout three times at intervals of two minutes; their next submersion continues for nine minutes, and when they reappear they may be miles distant from the spot where they dived. The whalers shoot the mammals usually between the second and third blowings, but they do not shoot to kill. Eighty-five per cent. of whales sink when killed outright. The procedure therefore is to incapacitate them with the first shot of the harpoon bomb and then to force air into their bodies through a tube. When sufficiently inflated to ensure floating they are killed with a charge of shot behind the head.
Whaling under such circumstances has all the thrills of the earlier, more primitive form of chase. Those who are fortunate enough to witness these launches in action are amazed at the skill of the helmsman, apparently flirting with death as the speedy chaser manoeuvres around the stricken mammal, often in a fairly choppy sea, to allow the gunner to place first the harpoon bomb and then the killing shot. Knowledge of the habits of whales seems to be a sixth sense with these men and the accuracy with which they determine the direction a whale will take after sounding seems to the uninitiated almost uncanny. Once sighted by these craft the quarry seldom escapes.
The Perano brothers are not the only New Zealand farmers who devote themselves to whaling for three months of every year. James Jackson, of Jackson's Bay, is another of a line of farmer-whalers who hunts the waters of Cook's Strait in the winter whaling season. His father and grandfather before him, for over half a century, have engaged in many an exciting hunt, but the open whaleboats and hand harpooning of the earlier years have yielded place to speedy launches and modern guns. Even with these the chase is not without its dangers. On one occasion a cow whale repeatedly charged a launch, smashing in several planks of the hull with terrific blows from its tail. Another whale, charging a launch, fore a hole in the hull 6 1/2 ft. by 2 1/2 ft., pushing its nose into the engine room. Both launches got safely back to Picton for repairs, the special bulkheads with which they are equipped preventing them from sinking.
If it were not for the migratory habits of the whales, the industry would not exist in New Zealand waters. During the Antarctic winter the mammals move north to the warm tropic waters, and there the cows calve. Coming up the eastern coast of the South Island, many pass through Cook Strait, where they are profitably hunted, and thence up the Australian coast. Others continue their northerly course up the east coast of the North Island. In October and November they are returning to their feeding grounds on the fringe of the ice, and it is then that the Maoris take their toll.
Whereas the Maoris continue to use the methods their forebears learned from the whalers of a century ago, and the Cook Strait farmers lead the world with their speedboat chasers, the old whaling station at Whangamumu, near Cape Brett, has covered the whole gamut of known whaling methods, as well as introducing tactics unique to that area. Founded in 1892 by an oldtime whaler, Captain Cook, who, even in his retirement, found the call of the sea and his ingrained love of the chase too strong to resist, the equipment at first was modest. Open whaleboats, manned by Maori crews, chased the whales in the age-old manner.
With the virtual extinction of whales in the Arctic regions, commercial interests paid increasing attention to the southern feeding grounds, and the intensive methods of the Norwegians, with their factory ships and fleets of chasers, resulted in the slow-breeding whale flock being decimated in a few years. Fewer and fewer whales were caught at Whangamumu. Captain Cook, loath to renounce the page 14 page 15 methods he had been born and bred to, had the lesson slowly but inexorably forced upon him that more up-to-date tactics were required. He knew from his many years’ experience that many whales followed the coast line, often passing at well-known places within a few fathoms of the rocks. The old whaler decided upon a novel expedient he would try to net his quarry.
Nets 60 ft. square were fashioned from 2 1/2 inch manila rope, with a 6 ft. mesh, and, floated by 20-gallon casks, a series of nets were spread across the tracks most favoured by the whales. After many trials, and when patience was almost exhausted, a whale was sighted one day acting most peculiarly. It was neither finning, breaching lob-tailing or fighting killers, but apparently doing a bit of each. It was so busy fighting to free itself from the ensnaring meshes of the net that it did not see the approaching whaleboat and was easily despatched. Many whales were secured in this manner, but finally, in 1910, a modern, Norwegian-type steam whaler was introduced.
The tactics of the steam whaler are to get more or less friendly with the whales, so that they come up almost alongside to blow. The lookout in the crow's nest sees the whale rising and the boat is steered toward the spot he indicates, sometimes getting so close that the spout of air sent up may blow over the harpoon stand. Then the gun speaks, harpoon and line hurtle through the air, and the chase is over.