Michael Fowler: The day a massive whale caused an even bigger stink on Napier's Marine Parade

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The large whale, which at first became an item of interest on Napier's Marine Parade in 1920, soon turned to an "odoriferous presence". Photo/Collection of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 53
The large whale, which at first became an item of interest on Napier's Marine Parade in 1920, soon turned to an "odoriferous presence". Photo/Collection of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 53

On the morning of 19 April 1920 Napierites awoke to find a large dead whale on the south Marine Parade beach. It was 63 feet (19m) in length and estimated to be between 40 and 50 tonnes (36-45,000kg) in weight and around 100 years old. The giant of the deep had thought to have been dead for about a week before it ended up on the beach.

At first great excitement was had by the Napierites about their gift from the sea and a half-holiday was given so schoolchildren could examine the "monster". However as the whale had been dead for some time the residents across the road were "receiving the benefit of this".

On 22 April children from Taradale School were taken to see the creature but they didn't stay long as the "perfume proved too much for the youngsters".

The Daily Telegraph reported that the residents nearby had "never been so frantic for a westerly wind, and today their joy knew no bounds when the wind turned south-westerly and they were able to continue their deep breathing exercises with a certain amount of comfort".

With the amusement factor of the large whale now well and truly overtaken by the smell of its rotting carcass, the Napierites pondered how to get rid of it. One idea was to cut up the monster and boil it down for its oil. But a few years back when a smaller whale washed up at Awatoto this is what had occurred, but for some reason the Government would not let the oil be sold. Therefore the only man that could do this refused to have anything to do with it.

The Napierites then decided that as the whale was below the high-water mark it was the Harbour Board's problem. Therefore the Harbour Board dredge J.D.O. would attempt to tow the carcass out to sea. A large steel cable was put around the mammal, but all that occurred was the whale developed "a pronounced waist" when pulled from the beach. Another attempt to return the whale to the sea in this way was made at the next high tide, but this also failed.


It was then resolved to blow up the carcass by means of several sticks of gelignite at 10pm the next night - but all this did was to blow a big hole in its head and body - almost dividing it in two.

After this, and under the supervision of the fire brigade's Mr Pickering, several barrels of tar and benzine (petrol) were placed on and around the whale and set alight. The whale slowly burned, but "great masses of putrefying red flesh hardly seemed to be touched".


After the burning failed, the solution was to bury it on the beach, taking many men to do this. The whale, however was not yet finished with the people of Napier. A month later heavy seas unearthed what was left of the rotting carcass, which was now about sixty feet (18m) long and three feet (90cm) high. The smell was once again objectionable to those living nearby.

A large quantity of benzine was poured on the remains and set alight, with tar thrown on to assist with the burning, which resulted in great clouds of black smoke. This at last achieved success, with The Daily Telegraph reporting "the residents of Napier South will be extremely glad when the whale is only a memory."

Michael Fowler (mfhistory@gmail.com) is the heritage officer at the Art Deco Trust, and trainer in accounting for non-accountants www.financialfitness.co.nz

- Hawkes Bay Today

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