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by  Jock Phillips

At the cry of ‘There she blows!’ gangs of whalers took to the waters. Whale oil, baleen, ambergris and bone were valuable, but many men hunted whales for the thrill of the chase. Whaling was dangerous – harpooned whales thrashed and rolled, damaging boats or pulling them under.

Ship-based whaling

For the first 40 years of the 19th century whaling was the most significant economic activity for Europeans in New Zealand – with the hunt first for sperm whales from visiting ships and then for right whales by shore-based whalers. The pursuit had major consequences for Māori society. Some of New Zealand’s most important early European settlers were whalers.

Whale products

During these years whaling was an important industry worldwide. Whales were caught primarily for their oil, which was used to light city streets and lubricate machines. It was also used by cooks for frying food.

The oil of sperm whales, the major prey for ships in the seas around New Zealand, was valued because it was odourless and could therefore be used indoors. It was also a high-quality lubricant, and an agent in tanning leather. Spermaceti, a light, liquid wax found inside the sperm whale’s head, was especially valued as a lubricant for precision instruments, and it produced the best smokeless candles.

The black or right whale, which became an important prey for shore and bay whalers from 1830, also offered whalebone or baleen, a form of keratin (the same material as human fingernails) which hangs in fringes inside its mouth. It was used in the fashion industry in the making of corsets, and for whips.

Whale teeth and bone were carved by whalers with time on their hands. This carving was called scrimshaw.

Grey gold

An unusual by-product of the sperm whale is ambergris (meaning grey amber), a waxy substance which forms in the whale’s large bowel, perhaps as a reaction to the beaks of the squid they eat. Ambergris was highly valued as an aphrodisiac and a base for perfume. The largest piece ever found, at 1,400 pounds (636 kilograms), came from a sperm whale caught by the Dunedin whaling vessel Splendid, south of New Zealand in 1882.

Origins of ship whaling

Whalers’ interest in the South Pacific as a hunting ground was first roused when British convicts were brought to New South Wales in Australia and ships needed cargo to bring back. The British government offered money for whaling, in order to contribute to the training of seamen for the Royal Navy, and enticed Americans to join their fleet. It was an American captain, Eber Bunker of the British boat William and Ann, who first hunted in New Zealand waters in December 1791. Over the next decade the area became more attractive as the East India Company’s monopoly on fishing in South Pacific waters was progressively lifted, and Governor Philip King in New South Wales worked to attract whaling. By 1801 King reported six ships whaling off the north-east coast of New Zealand, and the following year he claimed that whaling was established.

Increased interest

From 1804 the number of whaling ships in the South Pacific grew, as the Napoleonic wars led to attacks on British whaleboats off South America. In addition to peaceful waters, New Zealand had plentiful sperm whales to the north-east. The land offered wood for fuel, timber for naval spars, flax for rope, and fresh water and vegetables to ward off scurvy. In 1810, 12 whaling ships were in New Zealand waters – mainly British vessels sent out by London venture capitalists, but also a few American whalers from New England, where Nantucket Island was a traditional whaling centre.

The 1810s saw a downturn as the fleets of Britain and America were caught up in the war between them. There was a revival by British whalers in the 1820s, and some Sydneysiders entered the trade with the abolition of the high duty on oil in 1823.

American and French whalers

The 1830s saw a big increase in American whalers in New Zealand. On whaling expeditions lasting about three years, in boats of up to 500 tons (called ‘plum pudners’ on account of their squat shape, like a plum pudding), the Americans often stopped in the Bay of Islands for supplies and rest and recreation.

Pacific purgatory

In the 1830s Kororāreka won a dubious reputation as the ‘hell-hole of the Pacific’, where prostitution, grog shops and drunken brawls were common. Most respectable observers were appalled. John Dunmore Lang described its inhabitants as ‘the veriest scum of civilised society’; James Busby noted that the whalers were open to ‘every temptation and opportunity for licentiousness’; and William Colenso claimed that the place was ‘notorious for containing a greater number of rogues than any other spot of equal size in the universe.’ 1

The crews were usually young, tough and truly international, with Pacific Islanders and Portuguese alongside the Nantucket men. Kept under tight discipline on board, they looked for fun on shore, and in Kororāreka (present-day Russell) they found it. In 1838 the Bay of Islands hosted 54 American ships along with 14 British, 18 French and 10 from Sydney. Whangaparāoa Peninsula and the Hokianga Harbour also attracted some. Further south, some American whaling ships anchored at Cloudy Bay or Otago and Akaroa harbours, where they would hunt right whales close to shore in what was known as bay whaling.

The French appeared from 1836, and a whaling captain, Jean François Langlois, organised the Nanto-Bordelaise Company to settle Akaroa, with whaling as one of the purposes of the proposed French colony.


From the early 1840s fewer foreign whalers visited as whales became increasingly scarce and the new government in New Zealand imposed duties and port charges. Occasional American whaling ships still visited in the mid-1800s, with the last one probably the Charles W. Morgan, which visited in 1894.

  1. Quoted in Don Grady, Sealers and whalers in New Zealand waters. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, pp. 130–31. › Back

Shore-based whaling


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 (Rakituma) 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 (Te Koko-o-Kupe) 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.

1840s boom

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

    • Ernst Dieffenbach, Travels in New Zealand, vol. 1. London: John Murray, 1843, p. 7. › Back

Pursuit and capture

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.

Whaling slang

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.

  1. Quoted in Rhys Richards, Murihuku re-viewed: a revised history of Southern New Zealand from 1804 to 1844. Wellington: Lithographic Services, 1995, p. 65. › Back
  2. Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand, abridged edition by Joan Stevens. Auckland, Christchurch, Sydney: Golden Press, 1975, pp. 17, 128. › Back

Māori and whaling

Whales have an important place in Māori tradition. Several tribes tell of the arrival of their ancestor, Paikea, on the back of a whale. Although there is debate as to whether Māori hunted whales, it is clear they regarded stranded whales as a valuable source of meat, and used whale teeth and bones for ornament.

Ship-based whaling

Māori men were eager recruits for whaling ships, as replacements for crew who had deserted; whaling was exciting and an opportunity to see the world. As early as 1804 a Māori was reported on board a whaler. In 1826, British whaleboat owners reported that one vessel had 12 Māori crew, who had proved ‘orderly and powerful seamen’. 1 At a gala day in Hobart in 1838, 30 Māori – one-third of the whalers present – took part in whaleboat races. Māori quickly introduced these boats at home, and by the 1840s whaleboats were widely used by Māori in New Zealand.

Visiting whalers also had a profound impact on Māori society. Especially in the Bay of Islands, whalers’ demands for potatoes and pork provided an early trade opportunity for Māori. In return, whalers often supplied muskets and alcohol, while their liaisons with Māori women further disrupted Māori society. On the positive side, it is said that the modern kūmara entered Māori horticulture as an American whaler’s sweet potato.

Shore-based whaling

Shore whalers also depended on Māori for food and women. Many early whalers such as Dicky Barrett, Phillip Tapsell and Jacky Love married into Māori families. Māori men became important whalers at shore stations, comprising 40% of the shore whalers; in Otago they were 50%.

Chewing the fat

Parekura Hei, who was involved with the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui whalers, recalled of the whales caught near Te Kaha: ‘I’d eat it fresh and I’d also hang it up and dry it just like dried snapper … When the whalemeat is dry you chew it raw like chewing gum’. 2

Māori whaling

Māori continued to whale in the later 19th century, long after most of the shore whaling stations had closed. They did so not as a full-time occupation, but as a seasonal activity alongside their agricultural work. This occurred to some extent on Māhia Peninsula and more particularly in the Bay of Plenty at Maungaoa, Ōmāio and Maraenui near Te Kaha. By this time the right whales had largely disappeared and Māori whalers hunted humpbacks and the occasional sperm whale.

On sighting a whale, lookouts would light fires and bang drums to alert the farmers in the fields. They would launch longboats and give chase to the animals before hauling them back to be cut up on the beach. This practice remained an important activity for the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe until the mid-1920s.

  1. Quoted in Harry Morton, The whale’s wake. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1982, p. 167. › Back
  2. Quoted in Don Grady, Sealers and whalers in New Zealand waters. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 210. › Back

Modern whaling and whale watching

By the end of the 19th century right whales had almost disappeared in New Zealand waters, and sperm whales were rare. New techniques now allowed the catching of humpback whales, which were more aggressive and tended to sink after being killed.


The first of the humpback whaling operations was at Whangamumu, an old whaling site from the 1840s just south of the Bay of Islands. In 1893 the brothers George and Herbert Cook moved there and developed a technique using steel nets to catch the whales that passed between a rock and the mainland. They could trap up to 20 in a season. From 1901 they began to use a steam launch to retrieve the whales, and in 1910 adopted motor-powered harpoon guns. By 1915 they were taking 70 humpbacks a year.

The Cooks used all parts of the whale, boiling down the blubber, crushing the bone, tinning the meat, and turning everything else into manure. Operations stopped in 1932 when prices dropped.

Tory Channel

Modern whaling returned to the site of one of the earliest whaling stations in 1911 when fisherman Joe Perano began motor-launch whaling at Yellerton Bay, Tory Channel. By 1913 there were two more motorised whalers in the channel. Perano established a large processing station at Fishing Bay in 1924, capable of dealing with 11 whales a day. This was an industrial plant on an unprecedented scale, where machinery had taken over from muscle and trypots. By 1960 Perano’s company were capturing over 200 whales a year, mostly humpbacks, and the occasional sperm or blue whale.

Other stations

The first part of the 20th century saw other attempts at mechanised whaling. At South Bay, Kaikōura, a boiling-down factory was set up to process the blubber, but the operation closed in 1921. Three years later a group of Norwegians established a permanent station at Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island. They used it for repairing their boats and gear over the winter in preparation for summer whaling in Antarctic waters.

In 1956 Hauraki Whaling Ltd set up a station at Whangaparapara on Great Barrier Island. Charlie Heberley of an old whaling family was the station manager, but in 1962 it closed – northern hemisphere whalers were intercepting the humpbacks on their annual migration and the catch collapsed. Two years later at 4 pm on 21 December 1964, the last whale in New Zealand waters was harpooned and Joe Perano’s operation closed its doors.

International regulation

The end of whaling was due to a lack of whales rather than public hostility to the practice. New Zealand had protected the right whale by law in 1935, but it was not until the emergence of a conservationist ethic in the 1970s that all marine mammals became legally protected, in 1978. New Zealand was a founding member of the International Whaling Commission in 1946, and 40 years later supported the commission’s full moratorium on whaling. In 1994 the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was created, covering most of the Southern Ocean south of 40° south. Despite these measures, it was revealed that whale numbers in the South Pacific had been severely depleted by illegal Soviet Union whaling in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whale watching

Protection has restored the numbers of sperm whales around New Zealand, and on the waters off Kaikōura people once more seek out whales – to see them, not kill them. Begun in 1987 with a single 6-metre vessel, in the early 2000s Whale Watch Kaikōura was taking 80,000 visitors a year to enjoy the spectacle of sperm whales in their natural setting.

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Whaling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 December 2023)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 12 Jun 2006