Friday, July 20, 2007

Old whalers turn their skills to saving dwindling Humpbacks

The hunters are now protectors but the instincts of the former whalers are as sharp as ever as they scan the wild waters of New Zealand's Cook Strait। Perched high on a clifftop overlooking the stretch of sea dividing New Zealand's South and North Islands, the four men -- Joe Heberley, Tommy Norton, Johnny Norton and Peter Perano -- press their eyes to their binoculars as they scour the horizon for the telltale spout of a surfacing whale.
"First thing in the morning is best for spotting whales। With the sun on the water, the spouts just seem to hang in the air," says Heberley.To the east of their open-fronted tent is the entrance from the strait to Tory Channel. On the opposite headland across the channel is the hilltop whaling lookout they manned nearly half a century earlier.
In those days, a cry of "Thar she blows!" would set off a mad scramble down the hill to sleek chaser boats, which would pursue the whales -- almost always Humpbacks -- with harpoons and deadly handthrown explosive lances।These days there are far fewer whales despite a worldwide 20-year International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling.For the past four years the former whalers have joined New Zealand's Department of Conservation in two-week-long surveys in early winter to count Humpback whales migrating northwards through New Zealand waters.By the fifth day of this year's survey, the former whalers have already seen 15 Humpbacks, more than the total spotted during the 2006 fortnight.They have also spotted a rare southern right whale, a species hunted to the brink of extinction in New Zealand by the mid-19th century.
Although now in their 60s and 70s, the four men have lost none of the competitiveness from five decades earlier when being the first to spot a whale would mean a hefty bonus।"The only thing that has changed is the colour of our hair," says Heberley, still buoyant after earlier spotting the right whale.Department of Conservation marine biologist Nadine Gibbs, who is in charge of the Humpback survey, agrees the former whalers still have what it takes."They've got great eyes on them even though they're in their 60s and 70s," she says. "They get to relive their youth, which is great."Then as now, a new notch is carved into the wooden chair of the first man to spot a whale."You have to be careful -- as soon as someone sees one, someone else will try to claim it," Heberley complains in jest.In whaling days, the men would climb up to the lookout before first light during the three-month season that began in early May.Sometimes in favourable conditions, the chasers would drive up to three whales into Tory Channel to be killed near the Fishing Bay processing works, where the valuable oil would be removed, along with meat and other by-products.
"If you got a flood tide and got outside them, you could drive them into the channel like sheep," Johnny Norton said। The men look back to their days with the Perano family-owned firm as the best days of their lives. "It was the most exciting job I ever had," says Norton. "We got a real buzz out of it." Part of the buzz was the danger, hunting Humpbacks up to 16 metres (50 feet) long and weighing as much as 36 tonnes in Cook Strait, famous for its wild seas and winds. But there were days when no whales appeared and the young men dreamed up some unusual ways of keeping boredom at bay. One of the whalers introduced stilts to the lookout, where they would totter along the narrow ridge surrounded by plunging cliffs. Chasing and wrestling a tame wild pig named Suzie was apparently loved by pig and whalers alike during the late 1940s. Suzie enjoyed more than her share of the men's lunches and the beer they wouldn't touch while working. Several generations of Heberleys, Nortons and Peranos have been whalers, an industry which goes back to the first days of European settlement in New Zealand in the early 19th century.
The Perano business was set up in 1911, several years after fisherman Joe Perano was frightened witless by two enormous Humpbacks surfacing either side of his small rowing boat, nearly knocking him into the water। The Perano whalers had their best year in 1960, catching 226 Humpbacks. But illegal Soviet whaling in the Antarctic and around New Zealand waters decimated numbers with an estimated 25,000 taken in just two years in the early 1960s. The Perano Humpback catch fell to 55 in 1961, then to 24 and nine in the subsequent two years. At the end of 1964, New Zealand's last whaling station closed for good. Now the whalers strongly support conservation, a cause New Zealand champions in the International Whaling Commission. "It's different now, there aren't enough whales to have an industry," says Johnny Norton. Gibbs says the number of whales seen in the last few years indicates some recovery but are still only about 29 percent of the numbers recorded at the start of the 1960s. The study aims to fill big holes in knowledge about Humpback numbers, an issue made more pressing by Japan's plans to catch 50 of the marine giants under its so-called scientific whaling programme.
After a whale is spotted, conservation officers sail out to take photographs and collect skin samples to help build up a bank of DNA samples. Today's boat carries cameras and dart guns rather than harpoons and explosive lances. But on the cliff above, the old whalers eyes' remain clamped to their binoculars. "Nothing has changed in 50 years," says Perano.

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