When Hori Parata talks to a dead whale on a New Zealand beach, he welcomes it home. “It is returning to where it was born,” he says.
The earliest whales walked on land—evolutionary biologists learned this from fossils that show a four-legged land animal gradually evolving into a marine mammal around 50 million years ago. Parata, 75, learned it from his elders among the Ngātiwai, a Maori tribe of northern New Zealand. The forest god Tane, they said, noticed that the whale, then a land animal, liked rivers and marshes—wet places. So Tane gave whales as a gift to Tangaroa, the ocean god.
Parata is a Ngātiwai environmental resource manager, and for him a dead whale on a beach isn’t just a smelly and potentially hazardous mess. It’s a gift from the sea.
Over the last 21 years he has flensed, or carved up, nearly 500 dead whales and other cetaceans on New Zealand beaches. He and a team of helpers remove the flesh and discard it, then clean the bones and teeth, which they distribute to Maori groups. Many of the bones end up as jewelry or staffs carved in the distinctive flowing, openwork style of Maori art, which often features fierce and beautiful stylized human figures, spirals, and fishhooks.
Flensing today is a political statement—a very visible expression of Maori management of the environment, after generations of New Zealand’s European settlers doing things their way. Maori harvest of dead whales has only been recognized as legal since 1998.
But for Parata, each dead whale is also an individual. As he welcomes it home, he tells it, “Your traveling in the ocean is finished. Your life in the flesh is finished. We are going to give you a second life in the bone.”
Very Large Godsends
Around the world, and not just among the Maori, beached whales used to be considered boons. In Iceland, the word hvalreki means a godsend—but it literally translates as “stranded whale.” In Iceland these days, whale carcasses are sometimes towed back out to sea and sunk, says Gísli Víkingsson, head of cetacean research at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute.
The situation is much the same in the United States, where 589 large whales (baleen and sperm) were confirmed stranded and dead between 2007 and 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Beyond the sadness, the dead whales are seen as a nasty, smelly problem, especially since the bacteria on their skin can be dangerous to humans.
Occasionally they are towed out to sea. If they wash up in remote areas, far from people, they are often left to rot. On busy beaches a backhoe may be brought in to bury them. Since an infamous incident in Oregon in 1970, managers have wisely opted not to blow up dead whales with dynamite.
In New Zealand, several hundred whales and dolphins come up onto beaches each year, according to a charity that tries to save them, Project Jonah. A year ago, 650 pilot whales came ashore at Farewell Spit. Despite the efforts of thousands of volunteers, most died. (A short documentary about the event is here, though it may be hard to watch for some.)
The reasons for beaching are many, from confusion due to noise pollution in the sea to simply being caught by a fast-moving tide. In many cases, no one can tell why a whale came ashore. But Parata says the Maori have an explanation.
“A sick whale keeps sinking down,” he says. “If a whale is on its own, it will head for the shore where it can lie on the bottom with its head out the water so it can breathe. Our elders tell us that one of the reasons they strand is that when they are hurt, they are scared of drowning.”
Cutting for Bone
When Parata’s team arrive at the scene, they fill out paperwork and collect a tissue sample for lab testing with staff from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC). Then, wearing protective suits that flap in the brisk ocean breeze, they get down to the more physical work.
They sharpen their blades and say a prayer, circled around the massive hulk of the whale. Hands covered in thick black gloves, they saw through the gray, mottled skin and into the pink blubber. Although a fresh whale cuts “like butter,” Parata says, decayed ones are stiff and difficult to cut into and harbor bacteria that can cause a nasty infection if they get into a wound. Hence the gloves and the suits, which quickly become sodden with gore.
Working section by section, the team use huge metal hooks to peel back the flesh and expose the massive, sculptural whale bones. The flesh and intestines are buried on the beach and the fat is rendered—cooked slowly—to extract its oil. Once the bones have been carved out, they’ll be buried under a couple feet of clean sand to keep them out of sight while maggots and other insects find them and thoroughly clean them. The cleaning takes six months or a year, after which the bones are dug up, blasted with water, and then left to dry in the sun for a few days.
As they work, Parata and his team also talk to curious passersby. Many people feel an impulse to touch the whale. “If you need to we will give you a pair of gumboots and some gloves to touch it,” Parata says.
If it takes more than a day to extract all the bones, a member of Parata’s team will sleep on the sand, guarding the whale—because sometimes public interest goes beyond curiosity. “Round about the time we were developing our protocol, people began chainsawing off the jaw or cutting a hole in the belly to get the ambergris,” Parata says. Ambergris, a substance sperm whales produce as part of their digestion, is a rare and expensive ingredient of perfumes.
At the end, the team will bill DOC for the cost of the operation. The government happily pays, since the harvest also has the effect of dealing with a potential health threat and public nuisance.
"We rely heavily on his expertise,” says Aaron Taikato, tribal relationships manager for DOC. “It is about ensuring that the mana of the whale is kept intact.” Mana, a complex Maori concept, refers to the honor, responsibility, power, and authority held by a person or thing, inherited and earned.
In pre-European times, the Maori ate beached whales, and the protein was very welcome. But there was still something portentous about a large whale stranding. Feasts were associated with funerals, and if the god Tangaroa was giving the people a feast, it might presage the death of an important person. When Parata was a child, he says, “If a whale got stranded on the beach the old ladies would start to cry.”
Very few beached whales are eaten today, since the cause of death might make the meat unfit, and since many are only discovered after they have begun to decay. An exception would be a suffering whale that is euthanized by the DOC, Parata says. There, the tribe might harvest some meat.
Each whale is different, and Parata and his team acknowledge this by giving each whale they flense a unique name. Each piece of bone they distribute will have a related name, and each item made from the bone will as well. It’s a better afterlife for a whale than being buried with a backhoe Parata thinks.
And he feels he’s the right man to escort the whales on their journey. His middle name is Temoanaroa, which means “long ocean.” The Maori who discovered New Zealand were part of a generations-long exploration of the Pacific by Polynesian peoples, one of the greatest human voyages of all time. “My ancestors have been looking at whales for thousands of years,” Parata says. “They traveled around on the ocean with them.”
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