Exactly when whaling from shore began in New Zealand is a matter of debate. Ex-convict and sea captain John (Jacky) Guard claimed that he began whaling (for bone, not oil) in 1827 at Te Awaiti in Tory Channel. The date is disputed and it appears that Peter Williams established a whaling station at Preservation Inlet in 1828. Certainly by the following year both men were successfully hunting right whales for oil.
Shore-based whaling took off in New Zealand almost 30 years after ships began whaling there, and 20 years after it started in Tasmania. There were a number of reasons for shore whaling:
- British duties on colonial whale oil were reduced in 1823 from £8 8s to £1 a tun (955 litres) and in 1825 to a shilling a tun.
- Sealers found that there were few seals left and were keen to transfer their energy and capital to a new venture.
- The number of sperm whales fell, increasing the demand for the less valuable oil of right whales, which were caught close to shore.
- The Greenland right whale fishery collapsed, making New Zealand whaling competitive.
- Shore-based whaling was cheaper to establish than the purchase and supply of ships. It was also safer and the oil was fresher.
Shore-based whalers hunted the black or right whale, which followed established migration routes around the New Zealand coast. In early winter females travelled up the east coast of the South Island. Some passed through Cook Strait, while others went on up the east coast. Along the way they sheltered in harbours such as Otago, Akaroa or Cloudy Bay to calve. Because right whales are big, relatively peaceful, do not usually sink once killed, and produce good quality oil, they were easy targets. Early whaling stations were usually located on the migration routes or in the calving harbours. Plentiful wood and water, a good harbour and land for growing food were also important.
Cook Strait was a major centre, especially Tory Channel and Port Underwood. Jacky Guard moved to Port Underwood in 1829 and by 1836 there were six shore stations and 18 whaling ships at anchor. Further north, the Kāpiti region had six stations and 23 ships by 1839. In the far south a series of stations were established in the 1830s around the coast from Preservation Inlet in the west to Moeraki in Otago. Johnny Jones, a former convict and sealer, was an important figure in the area and at one stage employed 280 men on seven stations.
In Otago Harbour the Weller brothers, like many early whalers originating in and financed from Sydney, established a station in 1831 called Otago (present-day Ōtākou). In 1835 the 85 men there killed 103 whales, producing 260 tuns (248,300 litres) of oil – despite competition from foreign bay whalers. Like other stations which survived for any time, Ōtākou doubled as a trading centre purchasing potatoes, pigs and flax from Māori for sale to Sydney merchants. But it was a precarious existence, and as catches declined in one area a new station would be established elsewhere. In 1841 Ōtākou closed after producing only 10 tuns (9,550 litres) of oil that year.
By 1840 there were up to 1,000 whalers in New Zealand and whaling led the country’s economy. During that decade new areas for whaling were discovered. There was an expansion on Banks Peninsula where stations had been established at Little Port Cooper in 1836 and Peraki in 1837. Kaikōura saw a rush in the early 1840s as Guard (temporarily) and other Cloudy Bay whalers, including Robert Fyffe, moved there, financed by Wellington money.
Another area of growth was the east coast of the North Island. Whaling began at Gisborne in 1837, and by 1847 there were 17 boats in Hawke’s Bay, with a particular concentration around Māhia. There were small ventures further north to Cape Runaway.
Some east coast stations operated sporadically into the 1850s and 1860s, but by then the great days of shore-based whaling were over. More than 100 whaling stations had been set up and much wealth produced. Charles Heaphy claimed that of the £224,144 worth of whale oil exported from Sydney in 1840, more than half came from New Zealand. But the shore whalers’ methods were ruinous to a long-term industry. As the naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach wrote: ‘The shorewhalers, in hunting the animal in the season when it visits the shallow waters of the coast to bring forth the young, and suckle it in security, have felled the tree to obtain the fruit, and have taken the most certain means of destroying an otherwise profitable and important trade.’ 1