A whale of a family tale

Brothers almost torn apart by success

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 18:02 26/07/2011

The Perano Whaling Station

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Whalers at the Perano station discussing a whale brought in for processing. Marlborough Historical Society Inc. Marlborough Museum Archives

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Two brothers brought fame and fortune when they revolutionised the whaling industry were nearly torn apart by their own success.

Picton whalers Joe and Charlie Perano began hunting humpbacks in the winter of 1911, the first to use powered motor-launches instead of rowboats for chasing whales.

From a factory at Yellerton, the men caught and killed their prey, moving to nearby Tipi Bay to be closer to the channel and get a better view the next year.

At first the pair worked together, but after taking a break for a few years, Joe decided to return to whaling and set up his own factory across the Tory Channel.

Charlie's son Ted Perano, also a former whaler, says that's when the rivalry started.

"They spent a lot of time fighting over whose whale was whose."

In those days, competition for the humpbacks was fierce. Multiple crews would race after the whales, desperate to get their harpoon in first and tie the whale to their boat.

"The whales were spotted off the lookout hill," Ted says.

"Then they leave a man up there, and motor out to where they thought the whale was. They used to use smoke signals like fires - at that stage there was no radio."

With only two men in each boat, it was a vicious battle, Ted says.

"The whale would be harpooned and rope attached. Then the other boat would go and hand throw a bomb into the whale."

The "bombs" were harpoons with exploding heads. They had a detonator inside them that would go off about seven seconds after they were launched.

Once the whale was dead, it began to sink, meaning it had to be filled with air from a compressor immediately.

According to the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, it was during one such chase in June 1927 that the rivalry between the Perano boys came to a head.

Two of their boats collided in a high-speed crash while competing for a whale.

"The incident was eventually settled in court, with Joe Perano suing Charlie for damages and winning the case in November," the Encyclopaedia said.

Charlie was forced to close Tipi Bay, which Joe bought but didn't operate, instead giving all his attention to his factory at Fishing Bay.

The factory went on to become a shining example of whaling technology - with Joe's innovations including the motor-powered chasers, electric harpoons and modern radios at the lookout and a "mothership".

Fortunately for the Perano family - who had 11 children - Charlie and Joe made up some years later. Charlie eventually returned to whaling, and would stand in as a skipper on the ship Tuatea.

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The Perano whaling station at Fishing Bay was closed in 1964. It ran for 53 years, processing more than 3500 whales.

Today the station has been transformed into a tourist attraction by the Department of Conservation.

- Stuff

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