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.Farewell Spit might be the most notorious “whale trap” in New Zealand, but it is far from being the only one. Another hot spot is the Chatham Islands, where the Moriori people had their own customs and beliefs associated with strandings. Alexander Shand recorded the following:
“Where whales or other large fish were stranded, it was the duty of the Tohunga to perform the prescribed rights necessary on such occasions, before any of the people were allowed to desecrate the beach on which the fish were either stranded or in the act of stranding. Any one coming by chance, and seeing such an occurence, went away at once and informed the Tohunga of the district, less his presence should prevent the fish from stranding. It was considered of the first importance that appropriate invocations and offerings should be made to Pou and Tangaroa, the head of the first fish stranded being placed on the Tuāhu, sacred to them, to induce a future recurrence of the like good fortune.”
The journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 3 1894 > Volume 3, No.2, June 1894 > The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands: their traditions and history, by Alexander Shand, p 76-92
It was the pursuit of whales that brought many of the first European visitors to New Zealand waters and there are plenty of accounts of whalers, fishermen and settlers seeking to monetize the misfortune of stranded whales during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The blubber from pilot whales, at the time often also referred to as blackfish, was stripped from the helpless animals and rendered into oil to sell.
This was unpleasant and at times dangerous work. There is even one unverified account of two men drowning while attempting to harvest whales at a stranding in Golden Bay.
“Some years ago two men were actually drowned while slitting the throats of several of these fish in Massacre Bay*, having fallen on their faces in a few inches of water. Mr Mackay (who was one of the party) only saved his life by an extraordinary effort”.
Wellington Independent, 17th September 1868
*An early name for Golden Bay
Large distressed animals in water, even shallow water, are an obvious risk to any people that get too close to them. I imagine that attempting to slit the throats of distressed whales did nothing to placate them – but we shouldn’t judge those who lived in a time when whales in New Zealand waters were primarily seen as a commodity. The danger is still very real today and whale rescue volunteers are warned of the potential risks of being in close proximity to stranded whales.
Many different species of whales and dolphins are known to strand on New Zealand beaches, but none in as large a numbers as pilot whales. What is thought to be the largest stranding anywhere in the world occurred in 1918 when approximately one thousand stranded at the Chatham Islands.
There is another particularly remarkable record of a stranding of whales at Puponga in March 1911, which I suspect if repeated today would make international headlines and talk shows. Among a pod of several hundred stranded pilot whales was one that was completely white…
“A visitor to Nelson, who has just returned to Christchurch, reports seeing the unusual sight of about 250 blackfish, a species of whale, on the mud flats inside Farewell Spit. The fish ranged in length from 28ft to 6ft, and from 19ft in girth downwards. Many of them were quite young ones, and the supposition is that the parents took their young up on the flats at high tide for feeding purposes, with the result that they were all left high and dry when the tide ebbed. A number of the fish got off with the following high tide, but the majority of them were unable to get away, and eventually succumbed after living for several hours. A peculiar feature of the remarkable occurrence was that one white fish was stranded, and the contrast between it and the black denizens of the deep was very marked.”
New Zealand Herald, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14635, 22 March 1911, Page 8
Another account of the stranding was relayed to the Press by Captain Corby of the steamship Arapawa.
“About a fortnight ago, while on a visit to Puponga, which lies just inside Farewell Spit, Captain Corby saw a great shoal of blackfish which had been washed up on the beach near the township. There were at least 150 to 200 of the big fish, and many of them were still living, as they were covered at high water, but were unable to get off the sand. Among the great shoal of stranded fish, which presented an extraordinary sight, was a large white fish. A few days later, a strong southerly wind and sea washed many of the fish, including the white one, off the beach. On his return trip to Puponga, when the Arapawa was steaming across Golden Bay, Captain Corby sighted several of the big fish, including the white one…”
The “white fish” was almost certainly a rare albino pilot whale. Albinism is documented in a number of species of whales, a famous example being a humpback nicknamed ‘Migaloo’, meaning ‘white fella’, which frequents the coast of Queensland, Australia, but perhaps the all-time most famous albino whale was a sperm whale encountered by whalers off the coast of Chile in the early 19th century. His name was Mocha Dick, but you might know him better as the fictional whale that he inspired – Moby Dick.
The whales that stranded at Puponga in 1911 were fortunate in one regard – there was no attempt to harvest them as they lay there helpless on the beach. The previous year fishermen had harvested another pod that stranded at nearby Pakawau and Collingwood.
The albino whale avoided an untimely demise at the hands of enterprising fisherman and then managed to refloat itself at high tide, but unfortunately it seems that it may have only survived for a matter of a few more days. The carcass of a ‘white fish’ matching its description washed up on the southern end of Durville Island. Initially the remains were supposed to be those of a celebrity cetacean, none other than Pelorus Jack – the white dolphin well-known for regularly escorting ships through the Pelorus Sound.
He was the first dolphin in New Zealand to be legally protected and attracted tourists from all around the world, but in March 1911, much to the disappointment of passengers traveling between Nelson and Picton, he went missing. News of the sad discovery of a corpse matching his description made headlines around the country.
However, “Jack” was soon sighted again, the papers retracted the news of his demise and a few days later the report made by Captain Corby gave a plausible alternative to the identity of the ‘white fish’ that had washed up at Durville Island. Pelorus Jack disappeared again the following year, sadly this time for good.
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any surviving photographs of the albino pilot whale that stranded at Puponga in 1911. One can only imagine the international media attention that a stranded albino whale would get today. There would be helicopters, hashtags, viral videos and Facebook fan pages.
Accounts of whale strandings in New Zealand through the 1920s and 1930s seem to mark a slow shift in attitude. During these decades stranded whales were still often looked upon as commodities but there were also some early efforts to try and rescue them, sometimes by attaching them by rope to a boat and attempting to tow them into deeper water. In some instances fishermen stripped the blubber from dead whales at the same time as rescuers tried to tow survivors to safety.
By the late 1930s the commercial value of pilot whales was so low that they were scarcely worth the effort to harvest, especially considering the remote beaches they sometimes stranded on. In 1937, when a pod of 49 pilot whales washed up at Mason Bay, Stewart Island, they were left alone as the price of oil was so low that “it hardly warranted the trouble” to harvest it. New Zealand’s whaling industry came to an end in 1964. Fourteen years later the Marine Mammals Protection Act gave all dolphins and whales in New Zealand waters the same protection that was once given to Pelorus Jack.
Today the transition from a nation of whale harvesters and hunters to whale protectors seems to be complete and this is also reflected in the way we respond to strandings. Locals and holidaymakers do what they can to refloat stranded whales; at places like Farewell Spit it has become a well-rehearsed routine. These efforts aren’t always successful, but now seems as good a time as any to be a whale.
© Lemuel Lyes