Today, we pride ourselves as being a fervently anti-whaling nation. And while most New Zealanders know that whaling also occurred in our coastal seas and on our shores, many would also assume that whaling in this country ended sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. In fact, this is not the case – the last whaling station in New Zealand closed down only in 1964.
Also surprisingly perhaps, the end of whaling was due to a lack of whales rather than public opposition to the practice. New Zealand had protected the right whale by law in 1935, but it was not until the emergence of a conservationist ethic in the 1970s that all marine mammals became legally protected, in 1978. New Zealand was a founding member of the International Whaling Commission in 1946, and 40 years later supported the commission’s full moratorium on whaling.
Whaling from New Zealand shores began around 1827. The two pioneering whalers were an ex-convict and sea captain John (Jacky) Guard, who began whaling at Te Awaiti in Tory Channel, and Peter Williams, who established a whaling station at Preservation Inlet (the southern-most fjord in what is now Fiordland National Park) in 1828. Whales were hunted for their oil.
Shore-based whalers hunted the black or right whale, which followed established migration routes around the New Zealand coast. In early winter females travelled up the east coast of the South Island. Some passed through Cook Strait, while others went on up the east coast. Along the way they sheltered in harbours such as Otago, Akaroa or Cloudy Bay to calve. For this reason early whaling stations were usually located on the migration routes or in the calving harbours. Because right whales are big, relatively peaceful, do not usually sink once killed, and produce good quality oil, they were easy targets. (They are called “right whales” because whalers thought the whales were the “right” ones to hunt, as they float when killed and often swim within sight of shore. As such, they were nearly hunted to extinction during the active years of the whaling industry.)
A thriving industry soon established itself, and by 1840 there were up to 1,000 whalers in New Zealand and whaling became integral to the country’s economy. However, even in the early decades of whaling in New Zealand, the industry did not escape criticism for its unsustainable methods. In 1843, German-born naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach wrote: “The shorewhalers, in hunting the animal in the season when it visits the shallow waters of the coast to bring forth the young, and suckle it in security, have felled the tree to obtain the fruit, and have taken the most certain means of destroying an otherwise profitable and important trade.”
The last whaling operation in New Zealand was founded by Joseph Perano. In 1911, “inspired” by an encounter with two humpback whales in the Cook Straight channel, Joe Perano established an operation on Arapawa Island, on the northeastern tip of the South Island. Perano was credited with many modern innovations to the New Zealand whaling industry, including constructing the first power-driven whale chaser in New Zealand, being the first whaling operator in New Zealand to use explosive harpoons, and introducing the electric harpoon to New Zealand. Though Joe himself died in 1951, his whaling business continued out of Tory Channel for 15 more years, run by his sons, Gilbert and Joseph.
The last whale to be harpooned in New Zealand waters was killed on 21 December 1964, off Kaikoura, for the Perano operation. The harpooning of this unfortunate whale ended more than 170 years of whaling in New Zealand.
Sources: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Acknowledgements to Nicola Wheen for providing the idea for this post in her article “A history of New Zealand environmental law”, in Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2004).
Photo top: Whale being processed at Perano Whaling Station, Fishing Bay, Tory Channel. Shows men in oil-skins on the whale, which is partially covered by a shed at the end of a jetty. Photograph taken circa July 1948, by Dr W Arriens. (Photo not to reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. PAColl-8163-38.) Bottom: Stripping a baby whale. Right whales were hunted when they came inshore to bear and suckle their young. Often the baby whales were also killed. As a result there was no long-term replenishment of the herds. This photograph from Kaikōura about 1910 shows whalers stripping the blubber from a baby whale. The men behind it are standing on a full-grown whale. (Photo not to reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. 1/2-022935.)