At the top of the South Island a sandspit stretches out with the wild Tasman Sea on one side and kilometres of mud flats on the other. This is Farewell Spit, New Zealand’s most notorious “whale trap”. It acts as a formidable obstacle for pilot whales, which frequently strand there in large numbers. On Friday a pod of up to two hundred stranded there – volunteers worked tirelessly to save as many as possible but tragically over half of them died.
A while ago I decided to spend some time looking into the history of whale strandings and how New Zealanders have responded to them. While researching the topic I stumbled upon the unexpected and remarkable story of an albino whale that washed ashore a century ago.
Farewell Spit is a special place for me. Over the years I’ve enjoyed many vacations near the base of the spit in my family’s much loved holiday home at the nearby former-coal mining town of Puponga. My family have been regular visitors to the area for over fifteen years yet have never witnessed a mass stranding, in fact we sometimes joke that perhaps our presence acts as a good luck charm and that the Department of Conservation should pay for us to stay there permanently. My parents recently enjoyed a holiday up there and continued the tradition by leaving a matter of hours before the most recent stranding.
The unfortunate reality is that whales have always stranded at Farewell Spit and likely always will, however, one thing that has changed is how people respond to them.
The sand spit we see today started forming at the end of the last ice age, and is the most recent of a series of spits that stretched towards, and on at least one occasion even reached, the North Island. Fossil bones in nearby cliffs suggest that whales may have come to grief in this area even earlier, perhaps before there was even a spit, and perhaps before they were even considered to be whales. Last year scientists from Otago University announced the identification of a fossil found in the Farewell Spit area as a previously unknown dolphin, a possible relative of the ancestors of modern dolphins and whales. This is a place that seems to have had a long, fascinating and sometimes unfortunate connection with marine mammals.
Thousands of years ago when pods of whales stranded on Farewell Spit there were no people to help or hinder them. Some of the whales likely refloated at high tide on their own but many became a banquet for gulls. The spit is still a Mecca for many different species of seabirds.
The first human settlers arrived in the area around 700 years ago and plenty of evidence of their occupation is still visible. Middens stretch for kilometres along the coastline, the remains of a fortified Pa overlooks the spit from Abel Head and blackened oven stones can be seen right next to where whales still strand today. Early Māori likely considered such whale strandings to be a gift from Tangaroa, the god of the sea. Every part of the whales would have been used; the meat eaten; the bones and teeth worked into tools, weapons and adornments; and the oil harvested – perhaps to be used in the manufacturing of paints or cosmetics.
It is hard to imagine what a monumental occasion these strandings must have been for those early communities, and it seems likely that each tribe would have developed customs, protocol and traditions around the arrival of these gifts from the sea.Continue reading