Whales have a huge presence among New Zealand history in both lifestyle and culture. Many of the Maori tribes have strong cultural affinities to whales. In Maori cosmology, whales are the descendants of Tangaroa, the god of the oceans. They were thought of in awe, as supernatural beings, and often deemed tabu, or sacred.
Kaikōura in particular has, and always will have, strong ties to the whales. This is in part thanks to the deep under water canyon system found just a few miles of the coast which creates the perfect nutrient rich environment to host such a diverse amount of life.
Early European settlers took advantage of Kaikōura’s ocean riches along with other spots along the coast of New Zealand, introducing whaling in 1842. This would quickly become one of the biggest incomes to coastal towns such as Kaikōura.
There were 5 Shore based whaling stations in Kaikōura. Haumuri bluff, Rnagi-inu-wai, South Bay, Waipuka and Waipapa.
For a time the whaling industry flourished but it didn’t take long before the number of whales started declining. The New Zealand whaling industry originally targeted the Right whale due to their nature and ease of capture, but when right whales became scarce the focus moved to the sperm whales and humpbacks.
New Zealand humpback catches alone declined from 361 in 1960, to just 9 by 1963.
As seen across the worlds oceans, all too soon the whales became scarce. With numbers of whales so low the industry became uneconomical and so came the closure of the New Zealand whaling stations. The last whale captured by a New Zealand station was in fact a bull sperm whale, taken off Kaikōura on 21 December 1964.
Then came a shift in perspective.
New Zealand became the first country in the world in 1978 to vow to protect whales and other marine mammals and by 1987 Whale watching was to become the new focus for the seaside town of Kaikōura.
By 1996, Kaikōura and its whales were attracting some 200,000 visitors a year and so the town blossomed into the tourism hub it is today.
The next time you get to visit Kaikōura keep an eye out for the historic artifacts found around the town. Built literally upon foundations of whale bone, Fyffe House- a whaler's cottage still stands today. There is also the whale bone arches lining the way in Kaikōuras memorial garden as well as huge cast iron pots that would have been used to boil up whale blubber back in the day.