Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Humphrey the elephant seal - Whangamata area and beyond

Recycled sculpture  Humphrey on foreshore near causeway Whangamata - photo July  2021 Chris Ball

There was an element of excitement for us and our communities , end July  2021, when a recycled fibreglass sculpture of Humphrey the elephant seal found its way to a most appropriate resting place - near the foreshore by the causeway Whangamata. This fibreglass sculpture was originally made back about just over  three decades ago by a local Whangamata surf board maker - Anderson Surfboards  - it took pride of place in the Annual Labour Weekend parades.

A much loved marine mammal by many when Humphrey first arrived at Whangamata in the early 1980's. Humphrey then spent the next several years visiting this stretch of coastline - known as Coromandel's  eastern seaboard- considered unusual for an elephant seal to be seen so far North from the Antarctic.

Large and loud, elephant seals are one of the giant marine  mammals of the Antarctic waters and sub Antarctic island waters - amongst them Auckland, Campbell, Macquarie Islands.  The colder waters along with fish and squid suit these marine mammals. Helen Stewart DOC NZ wildlife ranger, living at Whangamata, enjoyed seeing these giants on several of Helen's Antarctic visits. 

Antarctic visit - photo Helen Stewart 

Elephant Seal Antarctic Islands - Photo Helen Stewart 

Humphrey ( temporarily named Willie on first arrival at Tuhua ( Mayor Island ) came as a surprise to local residents from far and wide - Tairua, Pauanui, Opoutere, Whangamata, Otahu, Bowentown , down to Katikati  and even reported at Tauranga enjoying a spot of  Mount Maunganui surf and sand. Humphrey's  choice of place and activity - sunbathing, sleeping on the sand, a favorite, along with a spot of surfing. 

The DOC NZ Wildlife Ranger, with interested residents and the Whangamata Wildlife group set up rosters to keep Humphrey safe from people harm or also to protect people from Humphrey harm. For his looks were better than his bite, bark or smell. 

Now this possibly, about three ton, visitor had become a popular part of resort and beach life that a name appropriate to popularity status was needed. Typical of communities a permanent name was bestowed, via a naming competition organised amongst Whangamata school children, by the DOC NZ Wildlife Ranger. 

                                  Humphrey on main beach Whangamata - photo Helen Stewart 
In October 1987, this marine mammal now known officially as Humphrey was causing hijinks on the Bridson dairy farm at Opoutere. Spurred on by a relaxing time on sand and beach, Humphrey took a fancy to Alan and Helen Bridson's cows. History has it that the cows were not impressed with Humphrey's amorous attentions. To the rescue, came Bill Gallagher well known Hamilton based electric fence manufacturer, Gallagher  and also  local, longstanding bach owner at  Whangamata.

An electric fence was installed to give the cows peace from Humphrey's rather exuberant amorous attentions. Instead, overnight, Humphrey became an international media star. Journalists were enthralled with the story, writing about and taking photos of Humphrey. Marine scientists around the world were also intrigued with this elephant seal from the southern waters. There were attempts to tranquilise Humphrey by the DOC ( Department of Conservation ) vets  to calm the amorous advances to the cows. 

Humphrey, not appreciating these parts of his holiday activity, moved location to the Whangamata wharf. The vets continued the tranquilising attempts to no avail. The Wild Life minding rosters continued.

   Humphrey at Whangamata Wharf - photo Helen Stewart     

Meanwhile a fibre glass sculpture of Humphrey  was made and became a major attraction in 1988 at the NZ National Fieldays held at Mystery Creek, Hamilton. Farmers from all over New Zealand and overseas at this agriculture event , enjoyed reading and hearing the story of Humphrey the elephant seal, Bridson's cows and Gallagher electric fence to the rescue. 

Then Humphrey was gone - no longer on the Coromandel Eastern Seaboard or Bay of Plenty Beaches - missed by residents and bach owners alike. The fibre glass sculpture of Humphrey took pride of place in the Annual Labour weekend float parade, held each year at Whangamata. Stories and tales of this marine mammal became a part of the culture of Whangamata's past history.

                                 Recycled sculpture  Humphrey on foreshore near causeway Whangamata - photo July  2021 Chris Ball

Pottery "look a likes", photographs of Humphrey and the fibre glass sculpture of Humphrey, were produced.  A  story of Humphrey encounters was written by local Whangamata person - Terri Smith - a member of the Whangamata Writers group. A  sculpture of Humphrey by chainsaw artist, Neville Warner appeared in 1997 at Katikati. Today in 2021 Humphrey sits at the landing part of the Katikati outdoors open art. 

Then even the fibre glass sculpture was seen no more for the Labour weekend parades came to an end in 2000. Humphrey sat forlornly in the Industrial area for a few years. The then local newspaper, Coastal News advertised for a new home, where fibre glass sculpture Humphrey could be pastured out.

Martyn Bayton, author, illustrator for children's books and producer, writer and director for stage and screen volunteered to give Humphrey a home. At Littlebrook Humphrey could be seen from the Whangamata Waihi Road, head high above the trees. 

This was Humphreys home until Martyn moved to Wellington and then it was back to the Whangamata Industrial Area. There, Humphrey forlornly sat in the Council Depot in Lindsay Road for several years, apart from taking part in a newly established christmas parade.

Until this year in 2021. Renovated by the Whangamata Menzshed - community group established in 2017 and who have done various projects for other community groups. Along with a financial helping hand from Bill Gallagher, fibre glass Humphrey renovated and looking " dapper" has a permanent home near the causeway.

Reminding me of this marine mammal that endeared himself to a community and became an integral part of past history of an area that is coastal and part of Te Moana nui a Kiwa  ( Pacific Ocean ). A place that has many species of marine mammals and fish living in our area. Where environment, art, writing and community can combine to share a story.


1.  Bach is North Island NZ speak for holiday home.

2. Many newspaper journalists called Humphrey an elephant seal, sea lion, seal, seal elephant etc. Offically Humphrey was a southern elephant seal. For some southern elephant seal facts see  online article Department of Conservation NZ 
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