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Whangamumu Harbour is a deep, sheltered cove with a bronze sandy beach and shady pohutukawa. From the 1890s to 1940, a whaling station was established on its northern shore.
From Russell, follow Russell Road and then turn left into Kempthorne Road towards Rawhiti. This runs into Manawaora Road. At the junction with Rawhiti Road, turn left and the start of the track is signposted after 1km.
For 15 minutes, the track crosses sometimes muddy farmland and is marked with green and yellow posts. It then becomes wide and well-formed, but sometimes slippery, as it climbs the hill to the lookout by the junction with the link to the Cape Brett Track.
Entering the Whangamumu Scenic Reserve, the sometimes slippery track descends for 20 minutes to the beach.
The whaling station is a further 5 minutes over the small promontory to the left.
Whangamumu Harbour is a deep, sheltered cove with a bronze sandy beach and shady pohutukawa.
From the 1890s to 1940, a whaling station was established on its northern shore. The Cook family were the main instigators and had a long history of whaling in the family. Some of the children had been born at sea on whaling trips.
Humpback whales on their known migration past Cape Brett were caught with buoyed nets, anchored by a strong cable to nearby rocks, one now known as Net Rock. When entangled, they were hindered in their movement and easily harpooned. This was the only place in the world where whales were caught by netting and the method was patented.
Once ashore, they were cut up, put on wagons and boiled for 36 hours in try pots, the concrete foundation of which are still evident.
In 1927, at the peak of the station’s output, 74 whales were caught, yielding 388 tonnes of oil and 70 tonnes of bone dust. Following the sinking of the tanker Niagra in 1940, the oil slick changed the whale’s migration path, forcing the closure of the station.
Most of the men employed came from Rawhiti, and many of their descendants still live in the area.
Whangamumu Whaling Station
The Most Remarkable Whaling Station in the World
During the initial whaling heyday in the early 1800s Kororareka was a well known port supplying the services required by beleaguered vessels. The impetus for exploiting this southern fishery had come from an 1825 reduction in duty attached to whale oil and the collapse of the Greenland fishery. The exhausted seal population and decline of that industry had also freed up men and resources experienced in local conditions. Around 200 (mostly American) whaling vessels plied New Zealand waters, capturing an estimated 1000 sperm and right whales per year. From 1827 onwards, these pelagic operations were joined by around 100 shore based stations.
Whales were first captured in traditional open boats, then harpooned or lanced at close quarters. The carcass was then carved up, mainly for its oil, but also for whalebone and baleen, a prized material in corsetry. The indiscriminate plunder led to a decline in numbers, so by the late 1870s most stations had disappeared. From the early 1900s however, technological advances including the explosive harpoon and steam-powered chasers, allowed remote kills and increased productivity. In 1909, Chief Inspector of Fisheries L.F. Ayson also attributed the industry’s revival to “the fact that the whales have been very little disturbed for the last thirty years…they are very plentiful round the coasts and south of New Zealand.” He encouraged all possible assistance to ventures bent on accessing this resource.
Eponymous ancestor William Cook had arrived as a shipwright in 1822 and married Tiraha, a relative of notable chief Tamati Waka Nene. They ventured south to Stewart Island with captain William Stewart, eventually returning to the Bay of Islands in 1834 and starting a boat-building business on the Waikare River. George also served aboard the whaler Splendid, the vessel Frank Bullen later used as a model for the Cachalot in his book the Cruise of the Cachalot.
The sea was evidently in the family’s blood, as all the sons ended up becoming seamen of sorts. The eldest son George became a whaler and had five sons, three of whom, George Howe (eldest), Herbert (Bert) and William (Willie), pioneered shore whaling in the area from 1890. The Cook brothers’ timing was perfect, as foreign vessels were now deserting the region, the last ship widely believed to be the Charles W. Morgan in 1894. After experimenting with several shore-based stations in the area, they moved operations to Whangamumu in 1893, choosing a streamside location to harness power and provide water. They somehow managed to circumvent official channels and their operation slipped between the mesh of the Marine Department’s net.
The brothers had noticed humpback whales passed close-by Cape Brett on both their northward journey to tropical waters for breeding in May and June, and southward summer migration to Antarctic waters. Bert Cook was one of the few people to ever witness humpback whales in the art of copulation. He reported the animals lying together in the water obliquely, with the axis of their bodies at around 45 degrees to each other and their ventral surfaces apposed. Only their heads projected above the water. In an act of mammoth intimacy the male assumed the upper position, while embracing the female with his flippers.
In his opus magna Murihiku, Robert McNab described Whangamumu as “the most remarkable whaling station in the world.” The reason for this bold statement lay in the fact the Cook brothers were the only whaling operation to use a net. The rationale behind this most Kiwi way of approaching a problem rested on the whale’s proximity to Cape Brett during their migration. The Cook brother figured if the leviathan became entangled it would hinder progress and facilitate harpooning. Trying to tow a whale swimming at 6 knots would never work, when the maximum thrust a human-powered vessel could muster was 5 knots.
Patented in 1892, the net was of an ingenious design, where ten fathom squares were secured together with rope yarn and later ¼ inch pliable rope. This patchwork design meant that when a whale became snagged it broke off only one particular section, leaving the rest of the net intact. The six foot mesh assemblage was buoyed with 20 gallon kegs and intermediate drogues of flat square wood. Iron shackles, the remains of which were evident for many years after, were secured to rocky outcrops and Waiwiri Island. Net Rock was later the favoured anchor point. The far end was moored on a buoy several hundred feet out.
Nets were meticulously laid at daybreak and hung like curtains below the water. Crews then rowed back to shore. A man stationed on a high point would then keep watch, the others anticipating the familiar call of “There she Blows!” The Cape Brett lookout man would light a fire to alert the offshore steamer, floating outside Piercy Island, which then hoisted a flag to summon the well-ordered chasers, pre-prepared with tools and neatly coiled rope. Five strong oarsmen rowed quick of stroke and sure of aim, the lancer checked his harpoon and the steer-oarsman directed the craft in the direction of the spout.
Life photojournalist George A. Walker wrote a racy article for the prestigious Australian magazine in 1910, describing how the “excitement becomes intensified as he goes below for the plunge that is to decide his fate. He may reappear beyond the zone; but no, the buoy gives evidence that he has struck a net; the excitement breaks loose in a shout and away go the boats for the killing.” The harpoonist would take aim, fire and study the uncoiling rope to ensure no snags or fouling would cause an accident. A capsized boat could mean death. The attached rope then served as a tow rope both to bring the whale to the surface and to lead the quarry to ashore.
The catch was a risky job, fraught with danger and adventure. “A telling thrust of the razor-edged lance may arouse in the whale such retaliatory feeling that one savage stroke of its far-reaching fluke will reduce the whaleboat to splinters, and leave the whalers struggling for dear life in several hundred fathoms of deep blue ocean…Whalers, who work in scanty attire ..are prepared for an immersion at any moment…if the whalers come through the hurly-burly of the conflict without serious disaster they are lucky indeed,” wrote Walker
James Whitelaw worked as a whaler in the later years. One incident is indelibly ingrained on his mind. “One day…the lookout at Whangamumu spotted a lot of white water, a lot of splashing. We went after them. There 20 to 30 killer whales attacking a lone humpback whale. Every time the humpback came up for air, the school of killers pushed him down. The humpback surfaced near us for a last gasp, and we watched as the cows rushed in, grabbed its tongue and pulled it out. The humback never came up again but sank to the bottom. They all went down, bulls and cows, and left a boiling mess of water.”
For a human attack, one well-aimed jab of the lance was enough for an instantaneous kill, however several thrusts were usually required. As blood started to cloud the water the whalers knew the last breaths of life were extinguished. Some whales floated when dead – a blessing, others were known as ‘sinkers’. Here the multi-ton animal was hauled to the surface, disentangled from the net and kept on a taught rope.
Having successfully triumphed in close-combat the whalers now contemplated the unenviable task of towing the 50-60 ton prize many miles back to shore. In failing light, with a strong head wind, rough seas and a sinking whale, the hardship would be unimaginable. The Gargantuan flukes would furthermore act as involuntary rudders, weaving the carcass and boat a greater distance than mere line of sight.
Processing the carcass was pursued as a matter of urgency – the longer the wait the more objectionable the task. One whaler commented, “the odour was a thing never to be forgotten. Indeed, one of our band, with a long serious face, was wicked enough to hope he would be late at the day of resurrection rather than have to meet such like perfumes.” Most whalers were immune to the stench and even enjoyed a slice of whale meat. One worker commented to Walker, “a slice o’ this an’ a honion would go down lovely.”
At the factory, the wharf crane hoisted up the whale and blubber was stripped in a long spiral cut with knives and long-handled ‘spades’. The blubber blankets were later chopped into 10 inch square pieces (junks), loaded onto wagons and sent to the steam boxes. These open concrete vats measured 10 foot, by 8 foot and were 10 foot deep. An average haul for single whale was five tons of oil. This was piped to wooden casks, and later 44 –gallon drums, picked up by Northern Steamship Company schooners and transported to Auckland.
Bones were crushed to dust for fertiliser and meat exported. Any discarded meat was washed into the bay, and James Whitelaw recalled how “you could just about walk on snapper, piper and herrings. They all had their fill. The sea was red with them.”
A radical advance took place in the station from 1910, with the purchase of more advanced vessels such as the 44 ton steam-powered Hananui II, fitted with a harpoon gun. Prior to her arrival the outfit considered 16 whales a good annual harvest. By 1911 an average of 50 whales were netted annually. The increased capital prompted expansion, possibly under the influence of new partner Mr Jagger (first name or true identity unknown), and the company set up a branch in the Campbell Islands. The 59-ton topsail schooner Hananui was added to the fleet to aid communication, but the venture was short-lived.
Neville Cook, son of Bert Cook, took over management of the company and employed 11 men at the factory, with 14 at sea. His most notable accolade surfaced in 1918, when the Hananui II discovered an unexploded floating mine and towed it back to the bay for disposal by the Navy. Oil yields continued to stay profitable, 1927 being the record year with a haul of 74 whales.
Declining numbers then plagued the business, as the huge factory ships of the Norwegian Rosshavet Company raped the Ross Sea waters. In just two seasons from 1929-31 these agents of death massacred over 3250 whales, causing both a drastic decline in numbers, but also an oversupply of products. Diminishing returns, competition from tallow and paraffin were reducing whale oil’s value on the global market and electricity was the new mod-con, leaving dirty old whale oil in the can. By 1932 the Whangamumu station had closed down.
One final act of celebration to mark the whaler’s unique methods was screened in 1933. American film-maker Woodward spent 2 months shooting while the whaler’s re-enacted their pre-steam powered chase. Despite a brief inflation of prices during World War Two, no future lay in the station. The sinking of the Niagara in 1940 apparently sent an oil slick 8 inches thick over the water, a disaster the whales seemingly never forgot, as they then changed their migration patterns to detour close to the Chatham Islands. The days of daring were over.
North Island ▷ Northland ▷ Russell
Nice walk. Would recommend. Like others said it might a bit slippery during the winter. The nature is so beautiful and the birds are differently. Does not go up hill too much. I had back problems and the walk wasn't a problem.
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Beautiful walk with really interesting history of whaling. Old whaling station at the beach and sweet waterfall nearby.
Walk to the beach takes under a hour with some great views along the way. Muddy and slippery in winter. Nice beach at the end. No dogs, fires or camping permitted.
Trek to Old Whaling Station
Very easy for begininers
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍