On 17th February 1908, Canterbury Museum’s curator, Edgar R. Waite couldn’t quite believe the goss circulating around Christchurch that day. A dead whale had washed up on a beach at Okarito, a dot on the map, roughly 137 km south-west of Hokitika.
So excited by the news, I don’t think Edgar even finished his cup of tea before grabbing his coat and paced the Museum’s corridors in search of William Sparks, the Museum’s taxidermist. The two men left for the West Coast that very day. They wanted to claim this wonderous find for Canterbury!
The pair reached the West Coast in 13 hours and I’m sure reluctantly stayed the night in Greymouth. They managed to locate a driver – who had never driven to Okarito before – who agreed to take them for a very hefty price. Unable to get a horse, they had to settle on using a mule that proved to be quite a character unto himself.
“…he had a habit of stopping and backing up…” Edgar said afterwards.
A huge rain storm broke overhead and before long, rivers were swollen and the roads slippery.
Finally the men laid their eyes on the prize when they saw the huge whale on its back, stretched out on the beach. As the two approached, Edgar later said they were lucky to have been able to ‘hold down their breakfast’ with the odour that met them.
They learnt that the large mammal had been washed up a fortnight. Edgar was able to confirm that the corpse had been a female Blue Whale. She was 26 metres long; her head was 6 metres long and 3 metres wide. Her tail flute was 6 metres long also. She had died of old age and had been dead at sea for quite a few weeks.
With great pride, Edgar claimed the remains for the Canterbury Museum. Edgar and William were forced to return to Christchurch without the whale, but soon the bones arrived outside the Museum on the back of a few drays, pulled by Clydesdales. They were mounted and put on display from 1908 till 2001.
*Image courtesy of the Canterbury Museum – http://www.canterburymuseum.com/*