Humpback whales used to regularly pass through the Hauraki Gulf during their migrations from Antarctica to the tropics and back. Whalers named them ‘humpback’ because of the way the animals arch their back before diving, which profiles the hump around their dorsal fin.
The relative abundance of whales in the Gulf led to the establishment of a shore whaling station in Whangaparapara Harbour, Great Barrier Island, in 1956. Two specially-built petrol-engined chasers, fitted out with harpoons, were used to catch the whales. The whales were then towed back to the factory and cut up into hunks to be boiled down. The oil was skimmed off the top of the liquid for sale and the solids were processed into blood and bone fertiliser. The baleen was dumped at sea. Some of the higher quality whalemeat was sold to restaurants in Auckland.
The 1960 season proved the most profitable with 135 whales caught. But then the population crashed and the whaling station was closed 2 years later. As well as being hunted in the Gulf and elsewhere around New Zealand the whales had been targeted in Antarctica by Japanese, Russian and Norwegian factory whaling ships. The remains of the old whaling station can still be seen in Whangaparapara harbour.
It was many years before humpback whales were seen around New Zealand’s coasts in any numbers. But now that the hunting of the whales has stopped, we are likely to see many more of these magnificent animals frequenting the Gulf again.