Story: Beachcombing

Whales and dolphins

Whales and dolphins

Southlander Lloyd Esler lives just a few minutes’ drive from Oreti Beach near Invercargill. He regularly walks along the shore looking for the remains of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans.

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Contributed by Lloyd Esler of Southland.

It takes me five minutes to drive to Oreti Beach, and about an hour and a half to walk from the main entrance to the place where the whale was washed up and then back again. I like the exercise.

It was a male sperm whale about 15 metres or so in length, and had been dead some time before being cast ashore. I salvaged a jar of the oil which was leaking from the carcass onto the sand. It was rancid at first, but it has mellowed over the years, and I find it a useful prop for talks on whales and whaling. With the fluidity of water, whale oil is absorbed readily into your skin, and doing whale work means losing your friends for a fortnight.

Oreti isn’t the best beach for cetaceans. Doughboy Bay and Mason Bay on Stewart Island yield more, and the Chathams are good. I’ve salvaged lots of them over the years with the skulls going to various museums. You have to have a good stomach!

My first was a pygmy sperm whale on Whatipu (Manukau Harbour) – way back. It has the most asymmetrical skull of any mammal and unusually long sharp teeth for a whale. That was the year I picked up a live sea snake from the same coast and a missile as well. The missile had an arm–disarm switch on the end so I turned it to disarm and lugged it home. I probably wouldn’t do that now.

The next find was a Risso’s dolphin on Hōkio Beach (Horowhenua): the first New Zealand one since Pelorus Jack, and then came a common dolphin on Doubtless Bay (Northland) which we tied to the car roof rack, but buried when the smell became unbearable. There was a new house on the grave when we came back the following year. The plastic sack with a skeleton had probably caused a problem for someone.

I did a fibreglass cast of a Cuviers whale (also known as goose-beaked whale) calf that I found near Dunedin. I took the heads from an Andrew’s beaked whale (also called a splay-toothed whale) and a strap-toothed whale on nearby beaches at different times. These latter three are beaked whales with a single pair of teeth in the males and only gums in the female. They feed by sucking in fish and squid.

Chatham Island has good whale beaches. There are often pilot whale remains there and I’ve seen a Berardius whale (now called the southern four-tooth whale), a Scamperdown whale and dolphins washed ashore as well. Mason Bay had a humpback calf last time and Doughboy had a dozen or more pilot whale skulls. Some of these finds are extremely rare.

What I really want is a narwhal tusk! I want to go into a junk shop one day. There will be a tusk of this Arctic marine mammal, about six feet of it, propped up in a dingy corner. ‘How much is that?’ I’ll ask. ‘Give us a couple of bucks and it’s yours,’ the owner will say. That will compensate for all those miles lugging back oily bits of whale.

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How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Beachcombing - Marine creatures', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 12 Jun 2006