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Whale of a tale

By Pauline Stewart


“A sperm whale beached in a bay in the Coromandel Peninsula on Saturday morning.”

" A 16-metre dead sperm whale was beached Saturday morning 22 October at Matapaua Bay,"

"DOC is currently working with iwi to relocate it to an appropriate place for burial." says Department of Conservation Operations Manager, Nick Kelly.

This is a summary of the initial press release, and no one could predict the events that happened, or the type of burial DOC was working out with iwi.

Who can look at this photo and not be moved in some way? This creature, lying on the sand at Matapoua Bay is magnificent even in death. Over 40 tons, 16 metres long, 70 years old, the humans gazing at its form are black dots. Of course, it is understandable that Māori see a beached whale as a gift. I know it has been said and printed recently by a maori spokesperson, “to them( pakeha) it is just a whale. To us it is the significance of ‘Ko ahau te tohorā, te tohorā ko ahau’ (I am the whale, and the whale is me).”

This comment is not justified when you watch teams of people of all races working to exhaustion to protect stranded whales. I have witnessed grown men weep when they have failed to keep the hope going, and they cannot save the whale. It is not current or justified for anyone to say about another ‘to them, it’s only a whale, but to us …” Cultures are very different and they all have strength and they all have contradictions.

The impact of this creature’s death and treatment has ensured one thing, and that is to all of us, it is a worthy creature. Despite the awful history of whale hunting using all the parts for economic purposes,( and English, Scottish, and Māori were all crewing ships together), history and the need to save whales has changed all our thinking and perhaps assisted Māori to return to their strong cultural connection to the whale. The crews of New Zealand and Australian whaling ships often had large number of Māori as well as Europeans, so everyone tries to make a living.

The Letters to the Editor express different views and ask for answers

I had a visit from a man who had been roughly treated by an attendant guarding the whale. As a resident, he was very concerned as to why it had been dragged up on Simpsons Beach, and he wanted to take photos, but was forbidden, and pushed until his glasses fell away.

He wrote to The Informer sharing the treatment he received. The next day we received a very different message from this man, who came to the door to tell his story. He could not accept that this aggression and arrogance, treating people as if they had no right to access a public beach, or to know what was happening or even take a photograph, was the general attitude of the iwi. So he did the right, and courageous thing, he contacted the local iwi, as he knew some of them well enough to ask for an explanation. His family had grown up here, and everyone was a neighbour and part of a community. His iwi contact was understanding, and did not support this attitude, and he said they had all been instructed to, “not speak to the media and keep people away and not speak about the whale.”

This is our visitor’s account as told to the Informer.

“When I rang, my iwi contact said, ‘No problem, I will take you tomorrow and show you.’ He would do this for anyone, not just me. He is from local iwi. He called me on Thursday morning and said ,”I am coming in a few minutes, so follow me in your car and come to the marae.” We both then went into the area where the whale was where there were a handful of people putting on protective gear. They started to work on the creature from 10am with the first shift of seven people cutting off the blubber, and then one would brief them carefully as to who needed to do what.

One woman was the manager of the site; she was very knowledgeable and competent. There were only a handful of local iwi, four, all of the others came from Taranaki and Whangerei. There was some discussion and tension over who would get the rights to have access to the whale. This was to do with respect for their culture. For the maori, they say thank you to the sea and removed one eye from the whale and returned it to the sea. Traditionally, Maori did not hunt the whale. They believe the whales are a part of themselves. It is a gift to the people, if a whale is stranded.

The whale was very exposed; they cut off the head and on Sunday, they removed the jaw bone, then they started to cut the head open. In the head of the whale, there was 1500 litres of this very special and valuable liquid, and it is used for the whale’s sonar system. The sperm whale makes the loudest noise any animal can make in the world, much louder than a fighter jet. The liquid(oil) is the receiver, and the oil is how the whale navigates. It is most valuable as the oil protects the whale’s own system for finding its way. This oil was divided into containers for the three iwi tribes. it is because of this liquid that the Japanese still go hunting for whales for scientific purposes and it is used for space research. It has qualities no other oil has and has a burning point of 300 degrees Celsius, and it does not freeze. It is far more valuable than ambergris. (Commercially ambergris a solid waxy substance, from the stomach of the sperm whale is worth $10,000 per pound, and is used in the most expensive perfumes.) The oil will also be used for ointments and treatments for healing. (end of interview).

There is a lot to think about. Maori cannot touch any protected species without permission from DOC and so the Iwi reached out to DOC who gave them permission. They dragged it to a new location, near the home of Ngati Hei at the end of Simpsons Beach. They were supposed to drag it up the beach but the big digger could not manage that task. More consultation followed, so then they decided to cut it up and do a cultural harvest. DOC does not have control over the whale bone and you cannot use whale bone for commercial purposes, not even a professional carver can carve whale bone for selling. Only Maori can carve whale bone for commercial purposes in NZ. There is a lot of whale bone buried on Ngati Hei land at Simpsons beach and little by little, maori carvers will create meaningful adornments that will last beyond their lifetime.

Questions: What procedures are officially in place to decide who has access to a whale, what is done to the whale and where it is done?

It’s hard to think about an experience as spiritual or cultural when such a magnificent creature is being cut into pieces, and its various parts are being assigned for different future purposes; some parts buried, some assigned to the depths of a deep hole to rot away, some stored for special cultural purposes or sold on. Yet for someone who donates their organs after death; their body undergoes a similar process. There is a very practical and gory aspect, but yet that life was sacred, that spirit eternal, and if there was love, it is indestructible.

The question of why it was not towed out to sea where the ocean could envelop the whale, remains.

The question of how he whale became a symbol of exclusivity and division is a nagging one?


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