Saturday, 9 August 2014

Eastern Coromandel coast encounters with sea creatures

Humphrey the Elephant Seal at Whangamata  - photo Helen Stewart
Stories of encounters with sea creatures feature in part of the past of history of Coromandel Coasts. Recent decades have seen meetings with an elephant seal who was given a name  Humphrey ( or alternatively by some Willie)in the 1980's ; orca whale and dolphins travelling a regular track up and down the coast; a pilot whale stranding at Ohui near Opoutere in 2004, the odd leopard seal stranded in a storm; commercial fishermens' encounters with sharks in nets in the 1970's and early 1980's.

Commercial Fishing early 1980's off Eastern  Coromandel Coast - photo J M Stewart
Reading those early newspapers of  New Zealand, back in 1874, it appears what was first described as a " sea monster" was caught at Tairua. One George Brewer,  was reported to have caught this " sea monster."  Slipper Island had been recorded into social history the previous year in Police Court, with the details of an assault by Brewer on one John Purcell who gave his occupation as cordial manufacturer.(Auckland Star,07/08/ 1873, p2). Less than a year later George Brewer, a leasee of Slipper Island from Mr. Graham, is reported to have caught this " sea monster."

Slipper Island off the Eastern Coromandel Coast near Opoutere, Ohui ,Tairua and Pauanui - Photo 1959 Whites Aviation - JM Stewart photo collection

Once again this stretch of what was then, isolated coast, appeared in daily newspaper columns. The reported catching of " the sea cow in the sea near Tairua about six hundred  yards below high water mark."  The difficult carriage of this huge monster said to be nine feet long and transported firstly to Tauranga and then Auckland. 

In 1874 the small 64 ton screw steamer, Southern Cross, Captain Sellars - did a regular run - Auckland, Whitianga, Tauranga, Opotiki  and Napier. Captain Sellars, following marriage to  Jane Falkner in 1857, became a permanent settler in the Tauranga Area. Sellars was a well known sea captain and regarded as a reliable and punctual seaman. ( Bay of Plenty Times,  23 /09 /1880, P 2 )Southern Cross with agent J.S. Macfarlane & Co carried mail, passengers and cargo, including livestock to the communities of the coast.
Shipping recorded the arrival to Port of Auckland on 25 June 1874 of passengers
Messrs. Hargreave, Mann, Garland, Starkey. Dacre, Howard, Morrison, Brewer, Jackson, McGee. Carina. Horsey, J. Ere, Tuttin, Graham; Miss Pearce. Miss Spencer, Clayton, Miss Wylie, Mrs. Dalzell; and two Maoris. Along with  a small cargo, including a sea-monster captured off Tairua.( NZ Herald 26/06/1874 p 2 ) Brewer, being amongst the passengers, accompanying the " sea monster" to Auckland - and fame. As nothing ill - toward was reported about this voyage, it would appear Captain Sellars once more demonstrated his able seamanship in getting this livestock cargo safely to Auckland shores.

The Auckland Star carried an account of what was by then being called a " sea cow" and its exhibition  : -

"The sea cow," which it was announced in our Tauranga telegrams a few day's ago had been caught at Tairua, has been placed on view at the Market-place. It is a splendid specimen of a species of aquatic mammals, very rare in this part of the colony. The animal is very large, and seems lively considering the treatment it has received consequent on the difficulties entailed in its carriage from Tairua to Tauranga and thence to Auckland. It bellows like a cow, hence the name that has been applied to it. Mr Robert Graham purchased the animal from its captors, and contemplates removing it to some suitable place where it may be preserved in life and be tamed. In the meantime those who are desirous of seeing this curiosity may do so at its present quarters., in the Cook-street wing of the Market."  
 Auckland Star 26 /06 /1874 p 2

Courtesy Papers Past National Library NZ Page 1 Advertisements Column 7 Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXX, Issue 5258, 29 June 1874, Page 1
Later reports noted that this " sea cow" had devoured in a day a bucketful of oatmeal, three schappers, half a loaf, and a poached egg. 

However it would appear that before Robert Graham could find a suitable place for this sea creature to be looked after appropriately, and not long after its removal to the Rock Baths, the death of this large sea creature was reported.

Another death in our midst has to be recorded. The so-called "sea cow," which has been on exhibition for some time at the Rock Baths departed this life on Sunday night, and its corpse was found on Monday morning. Several gentlemen were present at the lying in state, and interviewed the briny monster. We are informed by a gentleman who had a deal of knowledge of natural history that the animal in question is nothing but a blue seal" of very perfect proportions. Its death will doubtless cause a considerable loss of revenue to the late proprietors." 

                                 THE Daily Southern Cross. Daily Southern Cross, 14 July 1874, Page 2

Slipper Island from Ocean Beach Tairua - photo CRB 2010

Thus sadly ended this part of the past NZ History of this sea creature on the Coromandel East Coast. 110 years later  when " Humphrey" burst on to the coastal scene, things were different. This elephant seal was not moved to Auckland but could roam free along the coast. Roam the elephant seal did - being first sighted in amongst Bridson's cows at Opoutere. Well known manufacturer with a "bach at the beach" - Gallagher Engineering - donated an electric fence to keep a bit of a barrier between him and the cows. Helen Stewart, Warranted Wildlife Ranger with Department of Conservation, organised a naming competition with Whangamata school children - hence  from then, the name Humphrey, for this "magnificent " sea creature. 

Humphrey enjoying Otahu at Whangamata - photo Helen Stewart

Unlike the 1874 sea creature captured, there was no charge for viewing Humphrey. Instead there were local volunteers organised from the community for feeding and guarding. Newspapers reported Humphrey's progress and for four years this stretch of the Coromandel Coast was home. Local potters did make statues of Humphrey, a plaster cast was on the Labour Weekend float parade. Then Humphrey was gone.

Stories of Humphrey live on - amongst them that of local Author Terri Smith in "Waves" recorded a story of her encounter with Humphrey. Neville Warner completed a chainsaw sculpture of Humphrey in 1997. This can be seen at Katikati - another coastal community down from Whangamata where Humphrey spent time during the 1980's. Many stories live on within other's memories contributing to a part of the past NZ History. Who knows if the sea will bring yet another sea creature.

 Reference Source:
  • TAURANGA.Auckland Star, 24 June 1874, Page 3
  • SHIPPING. New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1874, Page 2
  • Untitled Auckland Star, 26 June 1874, Page 2
  • West Coast Times. MONDAY, JULY 13, 1874. West Coast Times , 13 July 1874, Page 2
  •  Untitled Auckland Star, 26 June 1874, Page 2
  •  Untitled Southland Times , Issue 1951, 22 July 1874, Page 2
  •  Katikati Mural Town  photo of Chainsaw Sculpture of Humphrey
  • ·    Compiled by: E Anne Ball (nee Stewart) “This and That ’’ Stories of People and a Growing Town, text 2001 pdf copy 2005[path]=items search[text]=wHANGAMATA+This+and+That+E+A+Ball+nee+Stewart
  • Whangamata Writers Group. Waves - new writing from Whangamata. Wellington: Steele Roberts Ltd, 2005.