Whale hunters back on new mission
Whale Survey: From killers to conservationists
It was a fierce winter's day when Picton fisherman Joe Perano took a boat into the Cook Strait and killed his first whale.
Earlier that morning, a man at a hilltop lookout high above Tory Channel had spotted two humpbacks cruising north along the coast, their tell-tale spouts bursting into the air.
Ropes coiled and harpoons ready, Mr Perano and his crew sped through the choppy water, desperate to beat two rival whaleboats also after a kill.
At 60 feet long (18 metres) and weighing 40 tons (36 tonnes), their prey dwarfed the tiny boat, but Mr Perano's men were quick. As the two other boats fought over the first whale, they darted after the second and thrust a steel harpoon into its side.
In agony, the humpback kicked out and swam off. Again the men gave chase. When they drew alongside the wounded whale, Mr Perano threw a bomb lance at it, while a crewman plunged a second harpoon into the bewildered beast's side.
As the humpback's blood spread red into the water, the men in the boat cheered wildly.
It was the Perano family's first kill and the beginning of a whaling legacy.
A century later, a group of whale hunters, including two Perano brothers, are back in a chilly hilltop lookout, keenly scanning the blue water far below.
Grey-haired and arthritic, they mutter to each other about spouts, birds and shiny wakes, peering doggedly through binoculars as if their livelihoods depended on it.
But this time the whalers aren't in it for the money. It is nearly 50 years since whaling was banned and the men are back in the Marlborough Sounds to help count whales.
The annual four-week Cook Strait whale survey, led by Wellington ecologist Nadine Bott, aims to provide more information about humpback populations.
Each winter the survey combines staff from the Conservation Department with volunteers, including the former whalers and helpers from sponsor OMV (an Austrian oil company), who gather at Arapawa Island to help take photos and samples.
When we arrive the weather is cold and clear, but a whale is yet to be seen.
The former whalers – Ted Perano, Joe Heberley, Tom Norton, John Norton, and Ron Perano – are quiet and focused, their only movement a slight shuffling in their seats.
Like the hut they sit in, the chairs have been specially made. They are lined with wool and leather to cushion the whalers' ageing frames, and on each there is an armrest with dozens of marks carved into the wood.
"That's a tradition from way back in the whaling days – if you spotted a whale you got paid for it," Mr Heberley, 68, explains.
"To keep your tally right, you put a little notch on your seat. It makes us old whalers very competitive. You spend a lot of time looking at your mate alongside you to see which direction he's looking at."
As we settle in, the call they've been waiting for comes up from 81-year-old Ted Perano. "Thar she blows," he yells, and four pairs of binoculars swing in line with his.
It's a nervous few minutes as we wait for the whale to spout again. If one of the spotters makes a false call they're fined, although these days the price is more likely a block of chocolate than a bottle of whisky.
Once the sighting is confirmed, Mrs Bott and her team rush to four-wheel-drives and down the hill to the boat.
The track they follow is a jumble of signs, like "Laura's Leap" and "Ron's Roll", marking corners where unluckier whale chasers have tumbled.
They must hurry, Mrs Bott says, or the whale could swim out of sight. "You would think it would be hard to lose a whale but it isn't."
At Okukari Bay, Mrs Bott's dad, John Gibbs, the team skipper, has been waiting with the boat, and the crew pile in. As the boat speeds out, directions come via radio from the lookout. "We're hard on him," Mr Gibbs radios up. "And when I say we're hard on his back, I mean he's straight underneath us right now."
As if it's heard him, the giant humpback surfaces, rolling gently above the waves and spouts a great lungful of breath into the air.
It's a magnificent moment, and one the researchers will get to see six more times that day, as four more migrating whales are spotted by the "boys" huddled warm and dry at the lookout. The boat crew follows each humpback for as long as it can, hoping to take samples and pictures.
But most of all, they're hoping the whales will flick up their tails and give a glimpse of their flukes.
Like human fingerprints, the tail flukes tell researchers "who" the whales are, and are vital in learning about how the humpbacks are surviving.
When the Peranos took up whaling in 1911, migrating whales were a common sight along the Marlborough coastline. Their tails waved to all-comers, their acrobatic antics a common joy.
In fact, it was a chance encounter with the whales that gave Joe the idea to go whaling. A pair of humpbacks rose beneath his boat, almost scaring him to land.
Not one to be outdone by a "big fish", Joe spent a few years devising a bomb lance – a harpoon with an exploding head – then bought a processing plant in Tory Channel with his brother Charlie.
The brothers were the first in the world to use motor launches designed for chasing, and they proved a roaring success.
However, it wasn't until Joe set up a separate station at what is now known as Fisherman's Bay in 1924 that he really began to make headlines. With three motor launches, a mothership for towing the whales, radios and electric harpoons, Joe was credited with modernising whaling in New Zealand and creating a business to make Marlborough proud.
At whaling's peak, the Perano station employed 45 men. They lived a rough life along the bay's tiny shore. There was little for them to do, bar drink home brew and fight once the day's work was done. Fortunately, the whalers were kept busy. During 16 days in June 1960, 78 whales were killed, with a total of 226 humpbacks caught that season.
Two years later whale numbers were so low, the Peranos started hunting orcas for oil. They quickly found it didn't pay the bills.
For a time the whalers could not work out what had happened to the humpbacks.
The answers, when they came, were from beyond their horizon. Factory ships run by the Norwegians, Russians and Japanese were taking thousands of humpbacks from Antarctic waters. "Once they cleaned out the humpbacks, they went after sperm whales and if the price of whale oil hadn't dropped they probably would have carried on with that," Ted says.
The Perano whaling station shut its doors in 1964, with the last whale harpooned by gunner Trevor Norton on December 21.
Soon after, New Zealand banned all whaling. In the years to follow, whale sightings fell as low as 20 a year in the Strait.
The idea to count migrating humpbacks did not arise until New Zealand and Japan faced off at the International Whaling Commission in 1998.
Japan wanted to take 50 humpbacks from the Ross Sea for research purposes, and New Zealand was criticised for opposing the plan without sufficient knowledge of whale numbers.
Initially, Mrs Bott was commissioned to do a desktop exercise, which grew into a two-week survey. When the old whalers were brought on board, it proved the winning addition.
"Spotting whales actually needs a particular set of skills," Mrs Bott says. "And the whalers are so experienced at it from their days at the lookout. They're our best spotters – despite their age they've got really sharp eyes."
Despite almost 50 years of protection, humpback numbers are yet to bounce back.
This year a record 73 whales have been counted, but Mrs Bott says the number is not significant.
"You would think that a population that has had almost 50 years of protection would be doing a bit better than that. But we're yet to see an increase."
It's disappointing for the team, especially when whale numbers in places such as Australia have experienced much higher rates of recovery. "It raises questions of why ours aren't doing the same."
The project has just received an extra three years of funding from OMV, to complete a full decade's data.
Finishing the full survey isn't the only reason Mrs Bott is grateful, as she admits that giving up the project now would be extremely difficult. "I do have a very strong attachment to this project. It's not just the whales, it's the people, it's the whalers, it's the place."
Over the years the two very different groups have warmed to each other, she says. "These were guys who used to hunt whales and we were the treehuggers, the greenies. But we were brought together by something of a common interest. It's a real collaboration, like a family."
The whalers revel in their memories of the kill. As we sit in the hut they tell yarn after yarn about the hunts, the boats and their old whaling comrades.
"I remember one day," Tommy Norton begins. "We all went out and all got soaking wet. So Charlie went down and was digging around in his chest to find something to wear. But the only thing he could find was a polka-dot dress. Well, he'd just got it on and we got a call to say there was a whale, so there was Charlie standing on the gun wearing this dress."
The room rocks with laughter, until the dogs begin to bark.
But, later, overlooking the hills and the water winding down to the old whaling station, Ted Perano explains those memories are part of the reason the whalers keep coming back.
"It's something I looked forward to each year, when the whaling came around in May. Now I look forward to it again, catching up with these fellows."
Joe Heberley says: "We want to try to preserve the whales so our grandkids can come out here and look at them, like we are.
"We're conservationists now."
- © Fairfax NZ News