Technical Development and Mechanisation
The foundations of the earliest modern-type factory for processing humpback whales were laid at Whangamumu, near the Bay of Islands, by H. F. Cook in 1890. At first the Cook family caught whales by a method which has no exact parallel elsewhere. Cook's group used massive steel nets spread across a narrow channel not far from their station, and with open longboats they drove the whales towards the nets which the animals struck and carried away, wrapped partly around the body. While the humpbacks were thus impeded, longboats could approach more closely for hand harpooning. By these methods catches of 10 or a dozen humpbacks per year were made. In 1910 Cook purchased a Norwegian-type steam chaser with a heavy explosive harpoon gun, and it is from this date that the modern industry in New Zealand can be dated. With the new catcher his annual take rose to an average of 70 per year until the station ceased operations in 1931, after Cook's death.
At about the time that the Whangamumu station became mechanised, there was a world-wide extension of the Norwegian whaling industry following on their greatly increased operations after Svend Foyn had developed the combination of steam chaser and heavy explosive harpoon in 1867. The first southern operations began at South Georgia in 1905, but ships converted as factories for processing whales worked along the coast lines of many of the Southern Hemisphere areas. Their first trial activities along the New Zealand coasts were in 1912 when the factory ship St. George, with a fleet of six chasers, started work off the northern part of New Zealand and continued south to Stewart Island. Their total catch, however, was little more than 200 whales (mainly humpbacks), which would have been insufficient to pay expenses for the venture if it had not been for the fortunate chance discovery of a large piece of the then highly valuable ambergris in the stomach of a sperm whale caught near the Solander Islands. Although there were many inquiries by other Norwegian companies, no further development of a modern-type pelagic industry along the New Zealand coast occurred.
In Tory Channel, at the site of one of New Zealand's earliest shore stations, there were several parties who had been engaged on a small scale using rowing boats into the twentieth century, and some of these in 1907 extended their activities to Campbell Island where they engaged in shepherding and shearing the semi-wild sheep, varied by catching right whales during the winter months. Their catches were of the order of 10 to 12 per year, but the significance of this venture for New Zealand was the development of an explosive-type spear. The whalershepherds used hollow pipes containing plugs of gelignite fired by detonator after they had plunged the sharpened pipe into a whale.
This technique was improved by J. A. Perano, who commenced whaling, with launches approximately 30 ft in length, in Tory Channel in 1911. The launches gave considerably greater speed and a light explosive harpoon was used to fasten quickly to the whale, to facilitate the action of the gelignite pipe. These advances raised the catches in Cook Strait where the return averaged approximately 50 humpbacks per year over the next two decades. Improvements to the factory brought about more complete oil extraction and fuller utilisation of the whale carcass, while in recent years a large deep-freeze plant has allowed much fuller use of whale meat. With improved lookout and catching boats the catch has exceeded 200 in some post-war years. The catches, however, dropped sharply in 1961 and still further in 1962.
Not far from the site of the Cook Station at Whangamumu, Great Barrier Island, whaling with a modern factory and chasers commenced in 1957, but persisted for only two years due to disappointing returns. Another company resumed operations at the same factory in 1960, but after one successful season it had very poor catches in 1961 and 1962. The recent drop at both shore stations in New Zealand, together with a decline in catches from East Australia, Norfolk Island, and the Antarctic, shows that the combined efforts of these operations have now overtaxed the humpback stock.