Museum of New Zealand
Te Papa Tongarewa
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Māori and other South Pacific people harvested food and materials from whales that occasionally stranded on their shores. This kind of low-impact 'whaling' changed in the early 1800s, when ships from Europe and America came to hunt the bonanza of whales in Pacific waters. Shore-based whaling stations were soon established in New Zealand.
In the twentieth century, whaling became more industrialised and deadly. But during the 1970s, New Zealand's attitude to whaling changed - from general support to active opposition. Now whale watching is one of New Zealand's most lucrative tourist enterprises.
Māori welcomed the meat, bone, and ivory that could be gathered when whales stranded. Such events provided enormous amounts of protein – something not readily available in a place with no large, naturally occurring land mammals. Artisans fashioned weapons out of the bone and ornaments from the ivory.
Maori also began to understand where and when these gifts from the sea might appear, developing rich traditions around stranding sites. Harvesting of this kind had minimal impact on whale populations.
The practice of harvesting stranded whales continued into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also became a small-scale commercial operation, with oil being boiled out of blubber from the carcasses.
Today, Maori sometimes take bone and ivory from stranded whales for customary uses such as carving.
From about 1800, whaling ships sailed from Europe and America to hunt in unexploited southern waters. They came for the staggering numbers of whales that had been seen there. One ship in 1792 reported sighting 15,000 whales off the coast of Australia in less than two weeks!
This oceanic whaling involved large vessels that routinely spent several years at sea. They targeted sperm whales, which yielded the highest-quality ‘oil’. The bulk of this oil was also easily obtained – bucketed directly out of the spermaceti chamber in the whale’s head.
Oceanic whalers also hunted southern right whales, which yielded large quantities of oil when their blubber was boiled.
haling was both lucrative and dangerous, requiring skill and considerable courage. Whalers chased their huge quarry in flimsy boats. Sperm whales often fought back, flicking their huge tails and smashing boats that pursued them. They dived when harpooned, sometimes causing boats to sink. A whaler’s career could end suddenly with drowning.
Oil from whales lit city streets and lubricated machines in rapidly industrialising countries like Britain and America. Baleen (flexible bony plates from the mouths of baleen whales) also provided the ‘bones’ to stiffen corsets, or was used in the manufacture of such things as umbrellas.
Shore-based whalers kept lookout for and gave chase to whales literally from their backyards. This may seem less arduous than years at sea on a sailing vessel, but the shore stations were often remote and conditions harsh. Several of these whalers had deserted the even harsher conditions found aboard some whaling ships.
The whalers’ homes were made from materials to hand. Furniture was improvised, often out of the bones of whales themselves. Supply vessels could be few and far between.
Since these whalers lived years on shore, they often married Maori women and settled permanently. Indeed, a large part of modern New Zealand’s founding population came from early whalers. This was the origin of many famous New Zealand whaling families, such as the Guards, Heberleys, and Barretts.
By the 1950s, whaling had become highly mechanised and deadly in its efficiency. Ships with diesel engines had long ago replaced steam ships, which had been the successors to sailing vessels. This meant that fast-swimming whales that could outpace sailing ships – blue whales, minkes, fin whales – had now come into harpooners’ sights.
Helicopters lifted off from mother factory ships to spot whales. Once sighted, whales seldom escaped. Fleets of chaser boats accompanied factory ships. On the chasers, harpooners fired harpoons with exploding heads – guaranteeing the kill.
As the name implies, a factory ship had a ‘production line’ style of organisation. Once the whale was hauled on to the ship, the flesh was flensed (cut away), blubber boiled for oil, and bones ground up for fertiliser. An average 100-tonne whale could be reduced to raw ‘product’ in as little as 20 minutes.
The only break in the global slaughter of whales in the twentieth century came with World War II. Once the war was over, the whaling resumed with renewed vigour. For many nations, whales represented a cheap and easy source of protein after war shortages. Whale products also went into margarine and ice cream, cosmetics, and even pet food.
New Zealand’s attitude to whaling has changed radically since about 1970. From a nation which, like other nations in the nineteenth century, ruthlessly exploited whales, it now promotes a worldwide ban on commercial whaling.
Even as late as the 1950s, New Zealanders welcomed whaling fleets to their ports. Their attitude began to change with the collapse of the small shore-based whaling industry in the country in 1964 – a direct result of overfishing by foreign fleets in the previous decade. People were shocked by the near-total disappearance of humpback whales that normally migrated to New Zealand shores.
The growth of the ‘green’ movement in the 1970s coincided with the recognition of whales as intelligent and sophisticated creatures. People were also shocked by graphic and gruesome footage of whales being slaughtered, which was released around this time.
From 1991, opposition to whaling became official – the promotion of a global ban on commercial whaling entered New Zealand Government policy. After a 200-year association with whaling, New Zealand is now a ‘committed conservation country’.