This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Mrs Rita Hall, daughter of Mr Cairo Huntley of Picton. Cairo Matekitepakanga Huntley was the son of the late William Huntley and Hariata Kere.
Whaling, hard yakker ‘but we got by’
Mr Huntley started at Whekenui when he was 14 as a driver of the steam winch. This drags the whale out of the water up onto the deck. “At that age I got to do all the hard yakker. I was considered ‘the boy’ back then,” he reflected. During his years of whaling Mr Huntley progressed during the different stages of the process, beginning as a flenser, pulling the blubber from the whale. When his father retired he took his position lighting the boilers. “I had to start the boiler going at six in the morning, getting steam up for the men to start at seven.”
The boilers were used to cook the fat and blubber. “When they pulled all the fat and bones and blubber off the whales, I had to cook them. The next morning I pumped all the oil from the digester and then cleaned it for the coming day, he said. The digester is a large steel tank cooker which is operated by steam pressure.
While still working on the boilers the Perano family appointed Mr Huntley as foreman of the station. Eventually he became manager which involved 24-hour callout and all the paperwork of the company. “Foreman was practically the same as manager except that you were a working foreman, so you had to do your share of the work. Any problems and they had to come to me and I had to straighten them out.”
When Mr Huntley first started in 1930 there were only nine people working at the station, but as whaling became more popular, more people were employed until there were 33 men under his management. “When I first started it was very hard, but we just had to make do with what we had, and we got by all right.”
Whekenui’s largest catch was in 1959 when nearly 226 whales were caught. “That was one of the busiest seasons for us.” But during the season the catching of whales had to be regulated – “we have had as many as 10 whales a day but during the middle of the season you had to regulate it in case the factory could not keep up with the influx.”
The men in the whale chasers would ring in the night before and ask how many whales they wanted for the next day so the catch would not get too high. “When they had done their days work they would sit up at the lookout and play cards and marbles and generally muck around.” Money was good then for the whaling families.
When Mr Huntley started, he earned a shilling an hour and by the end of the season had 25 pounds. As years went by wages went up, until a new system of payment was started. “Just before the war we asked the boss if we could have it on contract basis. So, a whale was worth so much and you got paid so much for each whale you bought in.”
So, in the record season of 226 whales, the men made quite a bit of money. “During that season some of the men made about 80 pounds a week and in those days it was very good money.” Even though whaling was very prosperous it claimed a lot of lives. “While my brother was a gunner on one of the whale chasers, he fired at a whale and the pin broke and the shell flew back and crushed his forehead. Another couple of chaps fell into some boiling water at the station and they died of bad burns.”
Things were not all that bad at Whekenui. “We used to catch sharks down there and we would sell their livers in town. With that money, we saved up for the end of season party. Whoever had the largest batch would hold the party. Then the firm built a recreation hall and we were able to have pictures twice a week and a darts team that used to travel to Picton for games.”
Mr Huntley never regretted retiring from whaling. “They were good times but I’m glad now that I have been away from it. I’m pleased that they have prohibited the killing of whales. Back then it did not really matter because there were so many of them. What we caught here was only a drop in the ocean.”
Mr Cairo Matekitepakanga Huntley passed away in October 1999 aged 84.