Weekly column by Kāpiti Mayor K. Gurunathan.
The first time I ever saw a whale. It was dying. Beached on the rocks at Paekākāriki. The glistening 18-tonne sperm whale was gasping through its blow vent.
Helpless adults stood around watching. Some teary-eyed. The children were crying. That's when I felt it. It was a connection to this creature, a sense of the unfathomable. I can only describe it as an ancient sadness that went deep into my core.
As the local journalist covering the 1996 beaching of three sperm whales, I had to get over this impact on my spirit and get the story. I never got over it, in fact, it grew. As the district and regional council staff as well as Regional Health and DoC officials grappled with the logistics of removing the bloating bodies of the three whales, local iwi made their call over their cultural rights.
Two remarkable women led this protocol. The late Tungia Baker and, by then, well-known indigenous whale expert Ramari Stewart. The event helped establish a joint protocol for the future management of whale strandings. But it was the stories the women told me that gave me a better understanding.
Before the arrival of the Pakeha and the whaling industry, the waters off the Kāpiti Coast were regularly visited by huge schools of whales. Tungia recalled old stories. During the mating season, the competing whale songs would travel up and hit the hills and echo back.
Ramari and Tungia explained that in the Māori world-view of inter-connected and inter-dependent life, we had a common kinship. So, these deep-water behemoths were ancestors. Humpback whales were known as guides that brought the Māori explorers to Aotearoa. The tragedy unfolded with the advent of the whaling industry and the use of whale oil as high-pressure lubricants for machines. Whales literally oiled the machines of the industrial revolution. At the height of the local industry there were five whaling stations on Kāpiti Island.
Years later, during the time of Mayor Jenny Rowan, I was invited to the launch of a model of a proposed massive bronze sculpture of a pod of whales designed by artist Mike Fuller. Titled Whale Song, it captured our minds but never gained the financial commitment needed for delivery.
But the vision had taken hold even if it was left smouldering. Until, in more recent years, the idea was picked up by local resident, former Wellingtonian of the Year and big-ideas-man Marco van Zeeman. He and a team of talented volunteers have been promoting the idea of siting the pod of whales inland within the Paraparaumu Town Centre.
Coastlands has been a keen supporter. Most people I know are supportive. Promoting the project as not needing any rates funding has been a good strategy. I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of the project, especially as it's grown to connect with two other projects I've been keen to see progressed.
Firstly, the restoration of the Wharemauku Stream that runs from the hills past Coastlands, the airport and to the sea at Raumati Beach. Secondly, a cultural-community centre that interfaces with the natural environment and the increased urbanisation of a growing town centre. Executed well, Whale Song would be a dynamic regional visitor attraction.
But there is a question that is challenging art communities and their understanding of public art sculptures across the world. In their response to the worsening impacts of climate change, artists are working at producing works that have low carbon emissions.
The Whale Song project is a massive infrastructure. The biggest whale is projected to be 24m long and weigh 42 tonnes. There will be five adults and two calves. They will require huge supporting structures like the ones holding up wind turbines. These in turn will need solid concrete platforms. The bronze parts of the whales are to be cast in China so the carbon auditing needs to look at where and how the tin and copper come from. Recycled metal will be the best approach. What's the carbon emission in production and transporting to Kāpiti and installation?
The Whale Song is unlike any other project because it's proposed as an environmental awareness project drawing attention to the plight of our collapsing ocean biodiversity. It's also linked directly to the restoration of the Wharemauku Stream. It will be tragic if the very symbolic project championing environmental guardianship is responsible for carbon emissions that will destroy the environment.
For Whale Song to take its place at the civic heart of Kāpiti's urban centre, it must sing a sustainable song. One that does not just exploit the ancestral whales again for commercial benefits. Knowing the indomitable spirit of Marco Zeeman, I know he is already up to the challenge.