Shore and ship whalers shared much in their pursuit of whales. The chase began with the famous call, ‘There she blows!’ At sea it would be shouted from the masthead; on land from a lookout point. Then the boats were launched. These light, double-ended clinker-built boats, often painted in bright colours, normally held six men (sometimes seven or eight) – the steersman or headman, four rowers, and the harpooner who also rowed (there were two oars on one side, three on the other). Sails would often be used.
The vessel approached silently because of the whale’s acute hearing, and once close, the harpooner would throw the harpoon attached to a line up to 300 metres long. Once it held fast in the whale’s side, the men shifted to the stern for the ‘Nantucket sleigh ride’. Sometimes, as in an incident at Rununder Point, Cloudy Bay, the whale would drag the boat under. Others would thrash their tails. One sperm whale known as New Zealand Tom allegedly destroyed many boats. Eventually, after a protracted and agonising struggle, the whale would tire and the steersman would come forward to plunge a lance into the whale’s heart or lungs.
With ship-based whaling the mother ship would often sail to the catch and the whale would then be attached to its side. Shore whalers were faced with the long haul of the dead whale tail-first back to land, perhaps in rough wintry weather. As a reward for their labours, the crew might receive a bottle of rum.
Once the whale was tied to the mother ship or hauled ashore, strips of blubber would be cut off and thrown into trypots to boil down into oil. On ships this created the risk of fire; on shore the rotting carcasses created an intolerable stench, attracting swarms of rats which feasted on the scraps. The oil was loaded into casks assembled by a cooper, an important craftsman in the operation.
Both ship and shore whalers were paid ‘lays’ – a proportion of the catch which varied according to the importance of their role. On the Australian ship Wanstead, in 1832, the cooper received 1/95th, the harpooner 1/140th and the ordinary seaman 1/200th. On shore the eventual payout was often meagre because the men were allowed to accrue debts for clothing, tobacco and spirits. The shore-based community included carpenters, cooks, painters and a ‘tonguer’, who held rights to the whale’s tongue in return for dissecting the whale, and who often acted as an interpreter to Māori.
According to Edward Jerningham Wakefield, shore stations were also dependent on ‘native wives’ – Māori helpmates for those who served for the season – who cooked, mended clothes and washed. Some whalers supported themselves in the off-season, from October to May, by cultivating gardens and looking after animals, and they often married into Māori communities.
Whalers’ language, some of which has survived in New Zealand, included such terms as ‘grunters’ for pigs, ‘spuds’ for potatoes, ‘weed’ for tobacco, a ‘heifer’ for a woman, a ‘titter’ for a girl, and a ‘squeaker’ for a child.
The cosmopolitan character of ship whalers was echoed onshore where runaway sailors and former convicts mixed with sealers, Americans, and a considerable number of Māori. The French explorer Dumont d’Urville thought the Ōtākou whalers, ‘a sorry crowd of deserters … the dregs of European society descended to the standard of the natives’. 1
Especially at the end of the season, shore whalers were prone to drunkenness and high spirits as they went on the spree. Wakefield reported ‘fierce quarrels and wild orgies’. Yet he also claimed, ‘Though prone to drunkenness and its attendant evils, the whaler is hospitable in the extreme, and his rough-built house is a model of cleanliness and order.’ 2 He argued that on-the-job whalers were highly disciplined and respected the hierarchy of the community. Whaling was a distinctive world, an onshore version of crew culture. Whalers had their own language and habit of calling people by nicknames, such as Flash Bill or Fat Jackson. Whaling, like sealing, helped establish the masculine traditions of New Zealand life.