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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 7 (October 1, 1934)

Royal Fish — The Whaling Industry in New Zealand

page 28

Royal Fish
The Whaling Industry in New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.) A whale capture in New Zealand waters.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A whale capture in New Zealand waters.

“You are like the King of Babylon,” remarked Hone Heke to Sir Everard Hume, who weighed 20 stone and looked it. “You are as big as a whale!”

This remark, perhaps rather cruel, demonstrates not only that Heke had assimilated some version of the famous episode in the Old Testament, but that the question of whales (often termed in England “royal fish”), was still in his mind; and this is not surprising, since there is little doubt but that the whale fisheries played the most important part in precipitating New Zealand's first war, “Heke's War,” 1846. When by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi Government officers intercepted revenue from whaling ships, which formerly went to Heke himself, that chief was very seriously disgruntled.

The history of New Zealand is very closely bound up with the whaling industry, and therefore a study of these huge animals, the largest known to science, is of exceptional interest to New Zealanders. Whales are mammals of the order classed scientifically as Cetacea, which in turn is divided into three suborders, the two living kinds being mystacoeti (whalebone whales) and odontoceti (toothed whales). “Whalebone” is the inaccurate name given to the baleen plates of the “right” whale. It is formed on the palate of the roof of the mouth, and is an exaggeration of the ridges found on the roof of the mouth of all mammals.

Whales are warm-blooded, breathing air from the lungs, without scales, with hands of the five-fingered variety, and with skeleton, brain, heart and blood vessels mammalian in structure. No external signs of legs are visible, but internally bones are to be found which represent the remains of the pelvis and the hind leg. They reproduce like all other mammals, and nourish their young with milk. They show inordinate affection for their young, and in the bad old days this was often taken advantage of by the whalers, who to capture the parent “made fast” to the young calf.

The exhalation of their breath, when the air is expelled with considerable force from the lungs after periods of holding breath, produces the well-known phenomenon of “spouting,” the spout being, not solid water, but a fine mist. Blubber entirely encases whales, serving as a food reserve, and to resist cold. The whale oil of commerce is extracted from the blubber, from wells in the head of the sperm whale, and also from the bones and tongue. This latter organ, which produces fine oil, frequently weighs upwards of a ton, producing ten or eleven barrels of oil.

In former years, whalebone was much more valuable than the oil, which was rather slow in finding favour. Thus, John Adams in his “Diary,” records the substance of a conversation with William Pitt, in which he remarks to the great English statesman, “The fat of the spermaceti whale gives the clearest and most beautiful flame of any substance known in Nature, and we (the whalemen) are surprised that you prefer darkness and subsequent robberies, burglaries and murders in your streets to the receiving of our spermaceti oil. The lamps round Grosvenor Square, I know, and in Downing Street too, are dim by midnight, and extinguished by 2 o'clock; whereas our oil would burn bright till 9 a.m.” Nowadays whalebone is of little value, owing to the competition of light flexible steel, and, to a far greater extent, the disuse (thank heavens 1) by our ladies of their ancient “plate armour”—stays, busks, farthingales and what not.

Ambergris, however, is still in keen demand, as a fixative for perfumes, while the “porpoise hide” of commerce is actually obtained from the Beluga or White Whale. The Norwegians, who now comprise the greater part of the whaling personnel, salt down large quantities of whale meat for home consumption. The Japanese, also, are very fond of it, and it is recently reported that many London restaurants are including whale meat in their menus. Whale meat is coarser in texture than beef, and also darker in colour, but provided that it is removed from a young whale and properly treated afterwards, it is not possible for the uninitiated even to guess at its origin.

Mr. A. G. Bennett, in his fine “Whaling in the Antarctic,” states that the Japanese used to catch whales in nets, and he mentions incidentally that “in New Zealand the same thing has been performed in recent periods.” But, so far as I can ascertain, the reference to New Zealand is inaccurate. Gilbert Mair states, in his “Reminiscences,” that in 1885 the Maori chief Te Pohika had a net made which measured a mile in length, and truly the fish caught in this net were varied and wonderful, but the only whales mentioned by Mair were porpoises. Even a steel torpedo net would be hard put to it to hold a sperm or Orca!

In point of fact, an efficient and safe method of capturing whales was invented in recent periods only, by a Norwegian named Svend Foyn, whose name appears in practically every work touching on whales. After prolonged and costly experiments, Foyn invented, in 1868, the modern harpoon, which revolutionised the whaling industry. This harpoon, used by New Zealand whalemen at the present time, is usually about 6ft. long, and its spear point consists of a bomb. It is fired from a gun, and, four seconds after impact, the bomb explodes inside the whale, killing or stunning it, and driving the barbs securely into the flesh.

Many people believe that whales have very small throats and so can eat nothing but the smallest of morsels. Though this is true of some species of whales, it is certainly not true of others. The fighting Orca, or “killer whale,” one of which paid an unwelcome visit to Nelson on last Boxing Day, is a flesh-eating animal, unappeasably voracious; this whale could swallow a man with the greatest of ease. In the stomach of one, mentioned in Scott's “Last Expedition,” was found page 29 thirteen porpoises and fourteen seals. They hunt in packs, and will attack anything, even the largest of their own species.

Concerning these fighting whales, E. Keble Chatterton, in “Whalers and Whaling,” mentions that “one particularly notorious fighting whale used to cruise off the New Zealand coast, and was easily recognised by his white hump. He was known universally as ‘New Zealand Tom’.” After an extensive and prolonged search for New Zealand references to this ferocious monster, I am forced to the conclusion that the author has quoted some garbled version of the exploits of a very famous, though scarcely pugnacious whale, “Pelorus Jack.” This fish for some years met vessels near Pelorus Sound, and became a well-known character to passengers. He was the only single whale ever to receive protection under special Order-in-Council, in which he was classified under the name of “Risso's Dolphin” (grampus griseus). He was the only member of the species reported from New Zealand waters.

During the war, the British Government commandeered all whale oil imported into the United Kingdom. The New Zealanders used it at Anzac, and, later, in France, to prevent “trench feet,” but the main wartime use for the oil was for food and munitions.

The whale fisheries in New Zealand began in 1794, when whaleships of the English firm of Messrs. Enderby, after whom the Enderby Islands are named, visited the New Zealand coast, principally the Bay of Islands. When they reported that the whales, driven from their familiar northern haunts, were resorting to the bays and inlets of New Zealand to breed, firms from many nations, but principally from Britain and U.S.A., established stations, in Hawke's Bay, Bay of Plenty, Queen Charlotte Sound, Kapiti, Stewart Island, Banks Peninsula, Dusky Bay, and later, from 1833, in Waikouaiti and Purakanui Bays, in Otago. The golden days of the New Zealand fisheries were between 1830 and 1840. In 1835, for instance, 116 vessels called in at the Bay of Islands alone.

The whalers frequently enlisted the aid of the Maoris, and Enderby himself is responsible for the remark that the native race “proved better seamen than the British.” Whales were then abundant in these parts. E. Jerningham Wakefield mentions having seen a venturesome party going out to attack a whale in Wellington harbour, “armed with a light porpoise spear attached to a few yards of rope. Luckily for them they could not get near enough, else they would have learned to their cost that it is no light matter to tickle these fish!”

From 1840, the whaling industry in New Zealand gradually declined in importance, until at present, in New Zealand proper, only two stations remain, at Whangamumu (North Auckland) and the Marlborough Sounds. The whales caught are mostly of the hump-back variety. At the former station, in 1931, 48 whales were taken, yielding 240 tons of oil and 44 tons of bone dust; in the same year, the Marlborough fisheries recorded 18 whales, yielding 92 tons of oil. The carrying on of whaling operations within the boundaries of the Ross Dependency, which is under the jurisdiction of the Governor-General of New Zealand, yielded, for the eight seasons ending 1931, 845,646 barrels of oil, or 33,825,840 Imperial gallons. The greatest recorded yield in this Antarctic region was in the 1930–31 season, when 272,500 barrels were obtained.

As to prices, the city editor of the London “Daily Express,” in its issue of the 2nd April last (1934) comments that some Antarctic whaling companies have sold the season's catch on the basis of £12 a ton, but the bulk of the catch remains to be sold.

Much has been written of the old-time New Zealand whaler, principally by the missionaries, who do not appear to have entertained a very high opinion of them. Yet, after reading Wakefield, Bullen, McNab, and last but not least, that great classic, Melville, one involuntarily inclines to Wakefield's opinion: “Though they have a dark side to their character, they claim gratitude for their frankness and hospitality, and admiration for their extraordinary intrepidity, their unbounded resolution, their great power of enduring hardship, and their perseverance in overcoming practical difficulties. These rough pioneers smoothed the way for a more valuable civilisation.”

They were rough, hardy and independent, and they would stand nonsense from nobody. When the redoubtable Te Rauparaha confiscated property belonging to one party, the whalemen went over to Kapiti in a body, armed with harpoons, guns and lances, and threatened to drive him from his island. On another occasion, when a rumour reached New Zealand of a war with America, the British whalers held an impromptu council, and planned immediately to capture, in the name of His Majesty, the American vessels then operating round these shores.

Practically all traces of the old whaling days are gone. At Kapiti, for instance, there remain only two huge try-pots, at “Field's End.” Nor is our literature on the subject in any way extensive; indeed, the student will find more of New Zealand's old whaling days in American publications than in our own books, since New Bedford whalemen were out here in great numbers. But even the sight of the rusty try-pots is sufficient to recall the days when the harpooner, his razor-sharp iron in his hand, stood waiting in the bow of a gaily painted whaleboat manned by a dozen hardy whalemen, urging on his men with stentorian cries of “Pull, pull, ye lubbers, till your backbones break! Pull, pull, till ye land me on the whale's back!” And the long row home to Kapiti,' over fifteen miles or more of rough sea, half-a-dozen boats lashed together with a stricken whale in tow, the rough voices pealing out that chanty so beloved of all whalemen: “A dead whale, or a stove boat!”

All ready! Giving the signal for firing the harpoon.

All ready! Giving the signal for firing the harpoon.

page 30 page 31
(Rly. Publicity photos.) On their return from the Australian tour the “All Blacks” played The Rest of New Zealand at Athletic Park, Wellington, on 30th August, the “All Blacks” winning by 25 points to 17. The illustrations shew: (1) The “All Blacks”; (2) Page being collared by McLean (Manchester in support); (3) Edwards collared by Hart; (4) the “All Blacks” give their haka; (5) Oliver breaking through; (6) Kilby collars Edwards who is fending off McLean; (7) His Excellency the Governor-General being introduced to members of the “All Blacks” by Kilby; (8) The Rest of New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photos.)
On their return from the Australian tour the “All Blacks” played The Rest of New Zealand at Athletic Park, Wellington, on 30th August, the “All Blacks” winning by 25 points to 17. The illustrations shew: (1) The “All Blacks”; (2) Page being collared by McLean (Manchester in support); (3) Edwards collared by Hart; (4) the “All Blacks” give their haka; (5) Oliver breaking through; (6) Kilby collars Edwards who is fending off McLean; (7) His Excellency the Governor-General being introduced to members of the “All Blacks” by Kilby; (8) The Rest of New Zealand.

page 32