Marlborough Sounds Whaling


For nearly 140 years, whales on their annual migration north were spotted by whalers from hilltop lookouts at the entrance to Tory Channel. Whale chasing boats then raced out to harpoon them and tow the carcasses to a shore-based whaling station, where oil was rendered from the whale blubber.1

Perano gunner Gunner Trevor Norton harpooning the 200th whale of the 1959 whaling season. ref A Century of Marlborough News 1866-1966, Marlborough Express supplement, p 43. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
Click image to enlarge

Te Awaiti, a shore whaling station, was set up on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds in the 1820s. In 1911 the Perano family founded a whaling industry at Arapawa Island that lasted until the end of whaling in 1964.2

An Australian ex-convict, John (known as Jacky) Guard was one of the first Europeans to settle in the South Island. He was driven into Tory Channel by a southerly storm in Cook Strait and chose Te Awaiti to set up his first whaling station.3  There were 100 Europeans at Te Awaiti by 18384, including Jacky Guard's wife, Elizabeth, who was one of the first European women in the area.  

In September 1839, Jerningham Wakefield wrote about the activity at Te Awaiti. "A large gang were busy at the try-works, boiling out the oil from the blubber of a whale lately caught....The men were unshaven and uncombed and their clothes covered with dirt and oil," He described the intolerable stench of the bay and also commented on about twenty five Māori/European children: "all strikingly and hardy as the goats."5

The shore-based whalers initially hunted and chased their prey using rowing boats and hand-held lances and harpoons. The Peranos, an Italian family living in Picton which turned to whaling when coastal trading proved unsuccessful, were the first to use motor launches in 1911.6  Harpoons with exploding heads, introduced in the 1920s, were fired from onboard harpoon guns and achieved a quicker kill.7

Perano's whaling worksPerano's whaling works, making the initial cut of a humpback whale, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives.
Click to enlarge

The Perano whaling enterprise worked out of three different whaling stations over the 53 years from 1911 to 1964.  Fishing Bay, the Perano's third Tory Channel whaling station and the most important, was established in 1924.  Once at the station, the whale carcass was winched out of the water, the blubber stripped off and the pieces then thrown into a digester for cooking. The oil was taken off the top, with up to five tonnes of oil considered a good haul from a humpback whale.8

Marlborough Sounds whaling peaked in 1960, with 78 whales being killed in 16 days during June and a total of 226 humpback whales being caught in the whole season. In 1962, however, humpback numbers were so low that the Peranos started hunting Orca for oil, but it proved to be an uneconomic enterprise.9

The Peranos caught 114 sperm whales and nine humpback whales in 1963. The last whale was harpooned in New Zealand waters on Monday 21 December, 1964 by gunner Trevor Norton. Falling prices for sperm whale oil and competition from foreign fleets had led to the end of the industry.10

Whalers were tough, resilient steel-nerved men who lived lives of hardship and high adventure during the winter whaling season. Whaling was in the blood - over the years, the crew of a fast, sleek Perano whale-chaser was likely to include a selection of Nortons, Jacksons, Toms, Peranos, Keenans, Loves and Heberleys - descendants of the first whalers.11

Whaling in New Zealand

Perano gunner at work, c.1960,Perano gunner at work, c.1960, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives. Click to enlarge

For the first 40 years of the 19th century, whaling was the most significant economic activity for Europeans in New Zealand. They first hunted sperm whales from visiting ships and then mainly right whales from shore-based whaling boats.12  Their whale boats were 20 to 30 feet long and sharp at both ends, with each boat carrying a collection of sharp lances and harpoons.13

Whale oil was prized for lighting and lubrication, but was also used in the manufacture of products such as soaps, paint and rope. Baleen, the fine filtering tissue from the mouth of a right whale14 was used in many nineteenth-century products, such as buggy whips, corset stays and umbrella ribs.15   Whale meat was also used for human and pet consumption.16

Former Sounds whalers have now joined with Department of Conservation staff to conduct an annual survey of whales visiting Cook Strait.

2009 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Grady, Don (1982). The Perano Whalers of Cook Strait (1911-1964) Wellington : A.H.&A.W. Reed Ltd , p.1
  2. McSaveney, E. (2008) Nearshore islands. Retrieved from Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand 
  3. Ponder, W. Frank (1986) A Labyrinth of Waterways : The forgotten story of New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds. Wenlock House, p.22.
  4. Dawber, Carol (2001). The Jacksons of Te Awaiti. Picton, N.Z.: River Press, p. 41.
  5. Dawber, p. 25
  6. Grady, p. 27
  7. Dawber, p. 20
  8. Grady, pp. 26,29,67,78
  9. Taylor, Mike. (2002) Slice of life; Whaling in New Zealand. New Zealand Memories, 37, p.38
  10. Grady, p.197
  11. Grady, p.11
  12. Phillips, J. (2007) Whaling. Retrieved from Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand  
  13. Dawber, p. 25
  14. Dawber, p. 15
  15. Whales and Whaling 2 (2009) Retrieved from Cool Antarctica:
  16. Grady, p. 151-4

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  • Looking for more info on Takaroa Makutu and her first husband please if anyone has any. I am a descendant. Thanks

    Posted by Chanelle, 09/06/2023 7:30pm (1 year ago)

  • my name is grant norton i go back to the first whalers.In around 1970 i had a photo taken with others as a kid down at the old whaling station,i know this photo was taken due to commerate the whalers.Would any one know where to find this.cheers

    Posted by grant norton, 04/02/2017 4:48pm (7 years ago)

  • My G G Grandfather was Tiemi / TeOne / John
    His surname comes up as ODONNELL, McDONNELL, TePUKU, TePUKE.
    What a mix up. There is a connection with Takaroa MAKUTU. I feel she is
    his Mother but I need to get more proof. Ho Hum It has been around 6 years of searching this part of the "TWIG" Anyhelp much appreciated.

    Posted by Yvonne Santos, 12/10/2015 5:35pm (9 years ago)

  • I am a descendant of Takaroa Makutu and Charles Huntley ... their daughter Elizabeth married William James Aldridge... their daughter Florence Ethel married Samuel Robinson who were my grandparents ...

    Posted by Judy, 20/02/2015 5:00pm (9 years ago)

  • I too am a descendant of Takaroa Makutu and Charles Huntley .... their daughter Elizabeth married William James Aldridge they together had Florence Ethel who then married Samuel Robinson .Florence and Sam were my grandaparents

    Posted by Judy, 20/02/2015 4:57pm (9 years ago)

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Further sources - Marlborough Sounds Whaling



  • Chasing Whalers: Tory Channel ex-whalers oral history project (2007) Oral History in New Zealand, ­19, pp. 1-8
  • Clark, K. (2011) Once were whalers. Heritage New Zealand, 120. pp.22-29
  • Grady, D. (1997, July 29) Nearly 300km for the real thing. Nelson Mail, p.7
  • Kennedy, J.(1988) Picton loses a link with its whaling past. Historic Places in New Zealand, 20, 13-14
  • The perils of whaling (1894, October 27) Marlborough Express, p.4
  • The shore whalers  (1971) New Zealand's heritage: the making of a nation, v.2.  Sydney : Hamlyn House, pp.427-432
  • Taylor, Mike. (2002) Slice of life; Whaling in New Zealand. New Zealand Memories, 37, p.36-41
  • A whaling incident (1895, May 20) Marlborough Express, p.3


Resources at the Marlborough Museum & Archives

  • Grady Collection: research documents, 1995.138
  • Smith, H.M., Whaling in Marlborough: photographs, 1954 
  • Whaling, Research boxes, 1960-

 There is a permanent display in the main Museum gallery and various artifacts held in the museum's general collection.

Resources at the Picton Museum:

  • Iron trypots and harpoons
  • Large collection of archive whaling photos including boats
  • Donated whaling items e.g. sea chest belonging to Captain Augustus Hood, whalebone chess set, sperm whale tooth with scrimshaw
  • Oral Histories of whalers (Loreen Brehaut) - tapes and full transcripts
  • Patterson, V. (1990) Perano whaling operations [school project ]  


Web Resources