Whale Tales


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Recently a friend of mine posted an image on Facebook that made me extremely envious. It was a rather long distance shot of a spray of water which he stated was from a whale, or possibly whales. He said that he had originally thought it was the sail of yacht but on a second look decided it was clearly evidence of whale activity. He was very excited and went on to say that over many, many years he had looked out to sea, hoping to view a whale and finally he had made it – lucky him!

What made me extra annoyed was that over many years, I too had walked and waited where he stood but with no sightings. Although I have done the Kaikoura experience and got very close to a very large whale, I really would love to stumble upon one by accident – not deliberately looking but just wandering along and ‘there she blows’.

Such was my keenness to see whales close up that I went to the Antarctic and although I spent almost all day searching (there was no night, only twilight) I only saw one. Apparently the krill that the whales eat had had a late breeding season and so the whales were elsewhere and not where I was, although I was told that almost every other time they are there in number!

Living in Oamaru, and just a few blocks from the sea, my opportunity for random whale encounters was quite high on the possible scale.

“Since moving to Ashburton however, my chances of seeing any sea life has plummeted to almost zero. I say ‘almost’ as Ashburton has had the very rare occasion when a whale has washed ashore. While it doesn’t count as an encounter it does imply that there are whales off the coast nearby, which gives me hope.”

A whale ashore

Many people will have heard of the whale that was washed ashore here recently. It caused quite a lot of interest in cetacean circles as it seemed to have been born without a tail fin and yet was seen swimming relatively normally off the Kaikoura coast. Sadly, it later died and landed on Wakanui Beach. In our digital age there have been reports and even videos made of people looking at the whale.

However, that isn’t the only whale to end its days in our area. These rather grainy photographs show a whale washed up on a beach between Waterton and Ashton. From what I can gather the poor creature, which was about 40 feet long, was found ‘washed up’ – no mention of whether it was alive or dead, although it looks to be a bad state, covered in stones and misshapen.

The Ashburton Guardian of 29 June 1921 simply stated that ‘the leviathan was discovered by Mrs Slater’.

A whale snippet

I would have assumed that such an occurrence would have been reported at length in the newspapers, but apart from that snippet nothing more was said. While it obviously stirred interest, the local newspapers chose instead to cover sport, the political unrest in Ireland, and a rather violent earthquake that seemed to rock the entire South Island. While no doubt interesting to read that a man walking through the Arcade at about 1.35am (no mention of why!?) had said that the quake felt as if “a subterranean hand seemed to grip the Arcade and shake it” – surely a giant creature of the deep lying in state on a local beach would invoke some report?

I cannot even ascertain how the whale was disposed of. Perhaps it was pushed back into the sea, or as happened in Oamaru’s well recorded stranding, which I missed due to being as yet unborn, that the animal was set alight?

I do know that it was still on the beach on 4 July. Out of town boxers who had gathered in Ashburton for the Mid Canterbury boxing championships were hosted for afternoon by John Grigg. After they strolled around Longbeach and had afternoon tea, they were taken down to see the whale.

Whale evidence

Therefore, without a wordy account from the local newspapers, or any other source I have consulted, these images, while faded and of poor quality, become our only evidence of the event. As they have only come in to the Museum collection recently, and from an ex-resident, I wonder if there are any more images, or memories of the whale? The museum would certainly be interested to hear. In the meantime I will extend my seaward glances to Ashburton shores as well as North Otago’s. I will see my whale somewhere, sometime.

Photograph Caption: Three photographs showing people looking at the whale washed up on a beach between Waterton and Ashton, 1921.  ©Ashburton Museum.

If you see a whale?

If you are lucky and see a whale what should you do? After you have taken your photos and marvelled at the sight, but before you post it on Facebook and annoy your friends, you should fill in a marine mammal sighting form, available on DoC’s website: http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/marine-mammals/marine-mammal-sightings/. This pertains to whales, dolphins, sea lions and seals. The form asks such questions as time, date, weather conditions, location and type of animal. An easy to read guide on the site gives you hints on how to identify the species, etc.

If you come across an injured or beached animal, or even a dead one ring the DoC hotline: 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

By Kathleen Stringer













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