17 Dec 2014

Eyewitness: Whale Tales

From Eyewitness, 3:30 pm on 17 December 2014

Gunner Trevor Norton firing a harpoon
Gunner Trevor Norton firing a harpoon towards a humpback whale just to the left of the chaser’s bow. Peter Perano says Trevor was an ace gunner and one of J. A. Perano and Company’s best – image taken by and courtesy of Peter Perano

“Quite angry actually… I mean it was bloody well unnecessary… they had a license but it meant nothing to them” – Peter Perano

On board the NarwhalAfter a record whaling season in 1960, with 226 humpback whales caught in Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds by J. A. Perano and Company, whaler Peter Perano was understandably looking forward to the year ahead. However, it was never to be repeated. With numbers so low, it was only four years later that more than 170 years of New Zealand whaling history came to an end on December 21st 1964, with the last whale harpooned in our waters from a New Zealand-owned ship.

Image: Gunner Trevor Norton and driver Joe Perano (Jnr) on board the chaser Narwhal – courtesy Peter Perano

“We were devastated,” says Charlie Heberley, who whaled with Peter’s father Joseph. “We got blamed here in New Zealand for killing the whales out.”

“Well let me give you an example; in 1960 we took the record number of whales here in New Zealand… that same season the Japanese and the Russians took 42,000 whales down in the Antarctic and that’s only what they reported.”

While an emotive subject, the whaling history of Marlborough stretched over generations and made a significant contribution to New Zealand’s economy. Whale oil was used for lighting and lubrication, as well as in the manufacture of products such as rope, paint and soaps. Whale meat was also used for human and pet consumption and much of the blood and bone by-product wound up feeding the market gardens of Pukekohe.

However, Peter Perano says the Marlborough whalers were committed to the survival of the whales they were hunting as their livelihood depended on it. The whalers were prohibited from taking right whales and while they didn’t have a quota for humpbacks, they were dictated to by the factory at Fishing Bay which could only process three whales a day.

Peter Perano says mothers and their calves were left alone, as well as any whales smaller than the length of the chaser boats. The fleet would also tag whales to ensure they weren’t depleting their own stocks and Peter says they never got one of their own tags back. “The bumper year we had no idea. We’d darted quite a few whales, tagged them and we thought we were fairly right. We didn’t realise the place was getting just absolutely wiped clean.”

Fifty years on and Peter Perano’s voice is still tinged with bitterness as he reflects on what forced his family’s three-generation business to finally close. However, Peter and his whaling contemporaries aren’t done with whaling just yet.

A decade ago they were invited back to the lookout on Arapawa Island, to once again spy the massive mammals migrating through Cook Strait. The group are a key part of the Department of Conservation’s annual whale survey, using their sharp spotting skills to help assess the recovery of humpback numbers since the end of commercial whaling. While numbers haven’t recovered greatly, they are on the rise with 92 humpback whales spotted in 2014, up from 47 in 2007.

And when asked what it is like to be poacher turned gamekeeper, Peter Perano grins. “Exactly the same excitement. We just don’t have to go out there and catch them and kill them.”

In this documentary Peter Perano reflects on what it was like to be a third generation whaler.

Nga Taonga Sound VisionArchived audio courtesy of The New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound - Whale Hunt, 1955 and Spectrum 918 / 919 The Last of the Whale Hunters, 1996 featuring Charlie and Joe Heberley.

Archival audio supplied by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.

About the Perano family

Joe Perano Senior and Arthur Heberly standing inside the mouth of a whaleAgostino Perano was born in Italy in 1850.  After making his way to New Zealand via America, Agostino married and eventually settled in Picton with his wife about 1885. He developed a successful sardine fishing and processing business which employed many of his 11 children, including son Joseph Perano.

About 1904, while Joe Perano was fishing in Cook Strait, a pair of humpback whales suddenly rose up on either side of his boat, almost lifting the oars out of the rowlocks. Determined to “get even” for the incident, Joe began whaling out of Tory Channel in the winter of 1911.

Image: Wellington Harbour Board : Photograph of Joe Perano Senior and Arthur Heberly, standing inside the mouth of a whale, Tipi Bay, Cook Strait. Ref: PAColl-8880. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22666300

Joe initially based himself out of Yellerton Bay in Tory Channel but moved to Tipi Bay, where his brother Charlie continued to operate until about 1928 when Joe took over the station. In the meantime, however, Joe had established another whaling station at Fishing Bay on Arapawa Island and it is here that Joe and his fleet created a small whale-processing plant and worked under the license of J. A. Perano and Company.

Whale being processed at Perano Whaling Station
Arriens, W (Dr), d 1962. Whale being processed at Perano Whaling Station, Fishing Bay, Tory Channel - Photograph taken by Dr W Arriens. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-8163-38. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23134781

The founder of New Zealand's last whaling station and last whaling enterprise, Joe Perano was credited with many modern innovations to the New Zealand whaling industry, including constructing the first power-driven whale chaser in New Zealand. These boats became a hall-mark of Perano whaling, and at one stage were amongst the fastest vessels in the country.  He was also the first operator to use explosive harpoons, trial an electric harpoon, and equip his fleet with two-way radios as early as 1936.

When Joe Perano passed away in 1951 at the age of 74, he had been whaling out of Tory Channel for 40 years.  His sons Joseph (Joe) Jnr and Gilbert Perano carried on running the business for another 13 years. In 1958 Joe Jnr’s son Peter joined the fleet, marking the third generation of the Perano family to take up whaling.

Whaling boat and Peter Perano
Left: Perano's whaling launch fastening a harpoon to a whale, Tory Channel. Ref: 1/2-C-21773-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22853600
Right: Peter Perano and his wife Robin outside their caravan affectionately known as Pumpkin, December 2014, image taken by Lisa Thompson