Whale of a tale

It might shine a light on a slice of New Zealand's past, but a Stewart Island archaeological project could also make history, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Price's Inlet in Kaipipi Bay, one of the many coves that comprise Paterson Inlet, is, like much of Stewart Island, isolated.

Yet recently it has been the focus of plenty of activity as archaeologists have gone beneath the surface in an attempt to ''fill in the blanks'' in its history.

Last month, three archaeologists - two marine, one terrestrial - headed to Price's Inlet, home to a Norwegian whalers' base (otherwise known as ''Kaipipi Shipyard'') that operated between 1926 and 1932. Their goal: to collect and collate field notes, measurements and photographs in an attempt to better protect the site.

Known as ''Project Njord'', the Southland Coastal Heritage Inventory Project (Schip) endeavour aims to be the first archaeological survey to result in the protection of a post-1900 marine heritage site in New Zealand under the Historic Places Act (1993).

Project manager Matthew Schmidt, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust regional archaeologist (Otago/Southland), says New Zealand's marine heritage is a forgotten aspect of our history and is not well-protected under the Act.

''The Act only applies to vessels that sank before 1900. That means any vessel built before 1900 that sinks after then is not protected.''

However, under Section 9 (2) of the Act, a post-1900 site may be declared an ''archaeological site'' if there is significant evidence relating to its historical and cultural heritage.

''At the moment, because it is a post-1900 site, the Norwegian remains don't have any legal protection under the Historic Places Act,'' Dr Schmidt says.

''If people tried to take things, the usual theft laws would apply, but we wanted to increase the protection in regards the heritage because, at present, we couldn't get involved if someone stole something. To get a declaration would mean it is classed as an archaeological site.''

Though the isolation of Price's Inlet reduces the risk of fossickers taking historically significant items, the site has suffered nonetheless.

''In terms of fossicking, it's the big stuff like propellers that we are worried about,'' Dr Schmidt says.

''All the loose stuff has gone, so someone would have to make quite an effort to take anything. It is quite inaccessible, but looking at the Otago goldfields ... well, people do want to get stuff.''

Dr Schmidt, who hopes the declaration will come into effect by the end of the year, says the reason he and his team are going to such lengths is because of the ''special nature'' of the Price's Inlet remains.

''It is a highly intact early 20th-century whalers' base. You can walk around and see how people lived and did things. It has also got a really good marine archaeological record, as we found out.

''It is a unique site. There are other whaling sites around, but this is unique because it is about a Norwegian company having a foothold in New Zealand to exploit whaling in the Ross Sea.''

In their article Pioneer Whalers in the Ross Sea, 1923-1933, New Zealand historian James Watt and American co-author William Barr wrote that the Norwegian whaling factory ship Sir James Clark Ross, commanded by Captain Carl Canton Larsen, reached the Ross Ice Shelf on Christmas Eve 1923, accompanied by five catchers (smaller chase vessels).

They had been dispatched by a Norwegian whaling company which had gained permission to hunt from the British Government.

''During that first season, they killed and processed 221 whales [211 blue whales and 10 fin whales], which yielded 17,300 barrels of oil,'' the authors note.

During the following decade, Norwegian ships employed by the Rosshavet company killed and processed 9122 whales, about half the total harvest of all ships operating in the open waters of the Ross Sea south of the pack-ice belt.

According to Barr and Watt, 18,238 whales (mainly blue whales) were killed, producing 1.49 million barrels of oil.

''From 1924 onwards, the Rosshavet catchers wintered in Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island, and from 1925 onwards a well-equipped shipyard, Kaipipi Shipyard, operated on Price Peninsula in Paterson Inlet to service the Rosshavet ships,'' the authors stated.

Dr Schmidt says close to 40 people worked at the Norwegian base at Price's Inlet before it was abandoned in 1932.

''The base acted as a repair centre for the boats. The chaser boats would go down to the Ross Sea, catch whales, process them and the oil would go on to the factory boat, which would sail off and these guys would come back to the base, where guys would have different jobs.

''Some would have been engineers, who would talk to the boatmen about what needed to be fixed; others would have operated a winch or pull boats up the slipway; there would have been a cook, a carpenter. They all worked hurriedly to get the boats ready for the next season.

''But the most important guy on the base was the diver. His job was dangerous. He'd wear one of those old 'John Brown' diving suits; he'd walk around under water with pipes attached to him and check for damage. He had his own hut, a tin building. He lived near the manager's house,'' Dr Schmidt explains.

''Brilliant'' weather last month helped the Project Njord team immensely. Water visibility allowed marine archaeologists Matthew Carter and Andy Dodd unhindered access to structures such as a slipway and the Othello, a vessel with its own interesting history.

''It's an amazing structure,'' Dr Schmidt says.

''It was built in the United States in 1853 as a sailing whaler and was used for whaling for about 15 years before being sold. Eventually, it was used as a coal barge near Bluff. The Norwegians towed it over from Bluff because it wasn't watertight and used it as a dry jetty. So it is a complete whaling ship from 1853 - that's really uncommon.

''We knew the Othello was there but we didn't know what condition it was in or the amount of debris that was on the seabed or how far the slipway extended into the water.''

A dozen volunteers from Stewart Island also helped. They spent a day clearing vegetation, enabling Dr Schmidt to have ''a good look around''.

''I knew where the features of the site were but, with only four of us on site, there was no way we could have cleared the vegetation. The Stewart Islanders are quite passionate about their heritage. They see it as an essential part of their identity.

''We weren't sure how intact the different evidence of the buildings was. It was all overgrown. We knew there were foundations to the manager's building but were unsure what standard they were in so we had to get that cleared. Likewise, the winch.

''Previously, only two of the piles to the bunkhouse had been found. We discovered the remaining two . . . We also wanted to check the number of propellers and other pieces left on the site.''

The Southland Coastal Heritage Inventory Project (Schip) is a partnership between the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT), Environment Southland, the Department of Conservation, the New Zealand Archaeological Association, the Southland District Council and Te Ao Marama Ltd.