‘Extracting jaw bones from a beached humpback whale wasn’t in my job description’


Here’s a great story from Steve Boyd, manager of Te Rūnanga o Waihao, who was part of the team that recently recovered the jaw bones from a dead whale washed up on a local beach.

One Monday recently on my way to work, I received a phone call from our chair, Graeme Lane. “There’s a whale on the beach at Lake Wainono,” he said. “I’ll meet you down at the Studholme milk factory.”

A local farmer, Gary Bruce, had stumbled across the whale while moving machinery between farms. Within the hour we had Anne Dodds (Aunty Sis), Anne’s husband Bill, Graeme Lane, Gary and Geoff Bruce, along with their father Murray, Steve Harraway from the Department of Conservation and yours truly on site. Access to the area was four wheel drive only; it’s not easy terrain.

Aunty Sis gave the whale a karakia, which we followed with a careful inspection of the site. The whale was right way up and appeared to have been dead when it was washed ashore. DOC subsequently told us they had had reports of a dead whale being sighted off the Timaru coast around 10 days prior. After some discussion it was agreed that we would do what we could to recover the jawbones, as they would make an impressive entrance way. Initial measurements suggested that they were more than four metres long.

I returned to the office wondering how I was going to find what I needed to do the job. Extracting jawbones from a beached humpback whale wasn’t in my job description. What followed was, for me, a humbling experience and an extraordinary sequence of events. I’m not sure how many phone calls I made that day – too many to count – and after a drawing a couple of blanks, I gave Takarei Norton a call to see if he could suggest anyone. He suggested Craig Pauling would be able to help us. A few emails and phone calls later, Craig had copied to me the Ngāi Tahu policy document “Beached Marine Mammal Protocol,” as well as a copy of “Interim Guidelines for the Initial Notification and Contact between the Department of Conservation and Ngāi Tahu over beached marine mammals”.

He also put me in touch with Ramari Stewart, who responded almost instantly to our call for help. “I can give you three days” she said. “Let me know when you want us there and what you want us to recover.” Suffice it to say that this short story simply can’t do justice to Ramari and her kaupapa. She really deserves her story to be told on its own.

By late Tuesday we had managed to gather together most of the executive along with Tewera King and Aunty Sis. They confirmed the goal and agreed to name the event Te Haumi.

Ramari turned up, as promised on the Wednesday night, her team, Zelda McIntyre, George Tierney and Nathaniel Scott. All are seasoned customary whale recovery experts, or kaimahi. Between the three of them they had been involved in the customary recovery of six whales, four in the last month. Ramari has lost count of how many recoveries she has been involved with.

We are also indebted to the local farming community, especially the Bruces and the Hughes brothers, who rallied to provide trucks, tractors and machinery to assist with the mahi. Along with Joseph Hullen, Tewera controlling the public, and two more from Arowhenua (Sha and Vicky), we were ready to start.

Access was difficult, as those that know the area will understand. After a number of safety and procedure briefings from Ramari, and considerable preparation work, we were on the beach shortly after eight o’clock on Thursday morning. The pictures speak for themselves, and we have nearly four hundred of them. The mahi is very well documented and some time we’ll put on an evening for those who are interested.

Joseph Hullen, Nathaniel Scott, George Tierney and Geoff Bruce operating Hiab.

Joseph Hullen, Nathaniel Scott, George Tierney and Geoff Bruce operating Hiab.

It took several hours of very hard work to recover the two jawbones and it was just on dark by the time we returned to the marae. The next two days were spent removing the flesh and blubber from the bones, while a huge straw bale sandpit was constructed to receive them. They were in place by the Saturday evening and the team returned to the West Coast early Sunday afternoon.

Many thanks to all those who helped, and to those who worked preparing the kai and kept the home fires burning. Many thanks to Craig Pauling for his support and assistance; and we are indebted to Ramari Stewart and to her dedication to this kaupapa. She is an extraordinary woman and we all agree that we were privileged to have had the opportunity of working with her and supporting her. I hope we cross paths again.

Sometimes people ask me why I’m still here….. this is it.

Nā Steve Boyd.