This harpoon is one of several used by Jacky Guard who was one of New Zealand's earliest shore-based whalers.
Whaling was New Zealand's first important industry. In the 1820s, ocean whaling became popular in our waters, followed quickly by shore whaling. Shore whalers hunted the southern right whales, which moved towards land in the winter months to give birth.
Although the shore whalers used similar equipment to their ocean-going counterparts, they did not have the initial cost of buying and outfitting a ship. This was not their only advantage. Ocean whaling ships could be at sea for several years at a stretch, and by the time they returned to land, the oil they had gathered would have deteriorated in quality and may also have leaked. However, a New Zealand shore station could be run in association with a trading ship which could bring supplies to the whalers and take fresh oil to Australia to trade at the end of every season.
Shore whalers used similar hunting techniques to ocean whalers. Once a team of them spotted a whale from their lookout point, they launched their whaleboat, and rowed swiftly after their quarry. Sometimes groups from rival whaling stations ended up chasing the same whale, and whoever took the prize would depend on skill, speed, and luck.
Once the boat was near the whale, the team's harpooner threw his harpoon into the whale, aiming to hook it behind the left flipper. The struck whale usually took off at high speed, towing the boat along behind it. When the whale grew exhausted, the boat pulled in closer and the steersman pierced its lungs or heart with a lance. The whalers towed the dead whale back to shore, where it was winched up a slipway and its blubber was cut into chunks by the 'tonguer'. The blubber was then boiled down in iron trypots to extract the oil.
The 1830s and 1840s saw shore stations spring up along the east coast of both the North and South Islands, and around Cook Strait. Whaling settlements could be grim places - rugged, windswept stretches of beach, scattered with whale skulls and bones. At the water's edge there were often the bodies of whales not yet carved up, and piles of blubber waiting to go to the tryworks. The stench of whale oil permeated everything - even the sand was soaked with it.
Beyond the beach lay the houses of the whalers. Some whalers only lived in the settlements for the winter whaling season. Others stayed all year round and started small farms, raising pigs and crops for food and trade. They were some of the first permanent European settlers in New Zealand.
Many early whalers formed alliances with, or married into, local iwi. They were afforded some protection by doing this, while Maori benefited from the extra trade.
The most successful whaling stations ran for around twenty years, but ultimately the industry was self-destroying. The right whale population was decimated, and most of the whaling stations closed down in the 1850s, becoming New Zealand's first ghost towns.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).