Butler Point is on Doubtless Bay. I tell you this because it is a great Cookism, wherein Captain Cook sailed past the area, and remarked in his journal, “it is doubtless a bay,” and the name stuck. I know you all know that I love Joseph Banks, but that includes a fondness for Cook by extension, and I rather adore his characteristic matter-of-factness. Butler Point Whaling Museum is one of those annoying appointment only places (though when I got there, I could kind of see why) which I normally avoid like the plague, but fortunately my boyfriend’s aunt kindly called them for us (she’s the best!), so I could avoid the sort of awkward phone conversation I hate (i.e. any phone conversation. I HATE calling people, even people I know). So with that out of the way, we were free to head down at our appointed time and enjoy ourselves.
Though this information is not easy to find online, I’ll tell you here: the museum costs 20 NZD. This did seem steep (still does), but it’s not massively out of line with what some other small museums in New Zealand charge (although the really nice ones in major cities usually cost about the same, or are free, so…), so it was best to just suck it up and pay it, especially because we weren’t asked to pay until midway through the tour, and it was certainly too late to back out then. The museum is not exactly easy to find…satnav will fail you here, as the road it’s on doesn’t exist according to GPS, so best to go with the directions on their very old-school website. Basically, you drive up to a gate that you have to open yourself (so it’s useful if you have a friend/travelling companion) and then carry on for another couple kilometres down a winding gravel road (unsealed, in the Kiwi parlance). Even though we left early, we still managed to be about five minutes late, which was slightly awkward as there was already a lady waiting for us by the parking lot when we got there. Fortunately, she didn’t seem too put off, and as we were the only visitors that day, proceeded to take us on the tour.
(There were no pictures allowed inside the museum, so you’ll have to make do with these pictures of the rather beautiful gardens the museum is situated within.) Now, whilst I am intensely interested in historical whaling practices, I do not condone whaling in any shape or form (nor does the museum – its focus is decidedly historical). Obviously it was a terrible thing, and it’s awful that it still goes on in some places, but nonetheless, I am a realist, and that does not change history, and the fact that whaling was once a thriving, commercially important industry. What’s more, I tend to favour many of the more brutal aspects of history, and whaling is right up there on the harshness scale, especially where maritime history is concerned. So it’s fair to say I already knew quite a bit about whaling at its mid-19th century peak, and unfortunately, what this museum really provides is an introduction, rather than something more in-depth. This is not to say that our guide wasn’t well-informed, because she certainly knew loads about the whaling industry, and perhaps if I had mentioned that I was already familiar with many of the things she was talking about, she could have deviated her explanations, but it seemed rude to interrupt, and besides, it wasn’t uninteresting, especially when illustrated with the use of actual objects used in the industry. It was more that with such a specialist subject, I guess I was hoping for a more specialised museum, rather than the overview I got. That said, I did learn more about whaling practices specific to the area, so that’s something.
Basically, she began by leading us up to the whaling boat parked outside the museum. Initially, it seemed bigger than I had pictured them being after reading In the Heart of the Sea, but once I saw how it looked when full of men (or towing a whale), then it really did seem insubstantial against the task at hand. Which of course, was to harpoon whales, and then let then swim around until they tired themselves out (which could easily take hours – 3 on average, but sometimes a full day!) or managed to wreck the boat and escape. If they did eventually tire, they’d be hauled in for the kill, and towed back to the ship, where they’d be cut apart and hauled on board, and then flensed and the blubber boiled down into oil (and spermaceti set aside for candles and such, if it was a sperm whale). There were also big pots and a giant ladle, so you could see how the boiling-down process would have worked. And a few portions of whale skull; baleen and toothed.
Once we got inside the actual museum, we were free to look around at leisure. The collection was fairly standard (having since been to another whaling museum, I can safely say this); lots of scrimshaw and ambergris and such. There were maps and factual posters, but the most interesting part was undoubtedly a video made in the 1920s that actually showed whaling in action (which is how I was able to gauge the size of the whaleboats when full), as our guide said, it really did tie everything together.
The whole reason the museum is here in the first place is because of Captain Butler (William, not Rhett, much to my disappointment), a retired whaling ship captain (I believe he was British, but also lived in America for a while) who had his finger in many pies that horribly exploited the environment, from provisioning other whaling ships, to exporting kauri gum and trees. Anyway, once he’d accumulated a good bit of money, he built a house here to accommodate his wife and their 13 children (though frankly, the house looks much too small for all of that), which still stands today, and is included in the whaling museum tour (still no pictures allowed though). He wasn’t the only whaler in the area, of course, as many American whaling ships docked nearby as well (hence the provisioning), but he’s the only one who settled and has a house still standing nearby, so this is what you get. The house only dates back to the 1840s, but is rather stuffy and rich in authentic smells. However, as a historic house it was fairly unremarkable, and many of the rooms contained random objects (ladders, posters, etc) clearly used by the curators/caretakers rather than meant to be seen by the public.
Once we’d finished the tour, which took about an hour and a half, we were free to explore the rest of the property on our own, which included a fernery, a walk that went down to the edge of the bay (so you could dip your feet in if you’re like me; there were a lot of bits of leaves and things floating around, but the water was nice and warm), and most excitingly, a giant tree. While not as tall as the kauri trees, it was massively wide and clearly extremely old (I think something like 1000 years), and unlike the kauri trees, you were allowed to get right up to it and hug it if you were so inclined (which you may be able to spy me doing in the photo). You could also walk through the forest to look out onto nearby Mangonui (a little, touristy bayfront town with a “world famous” chippy. I can’t judge the fish, since I don’t eat it, but I’ve had much better chips). There was also a teeny graveyard where Captain Butler was buried, along with some of his family and the subsequent owners of the house.
Although I didn’t walk away feeling as though I’d learned quite as much as I’d hoped, I think it’s difficult with this sort of attraction where you have to cater for all levels of knowledge, which is many cases may be fairly slight, and you don’t have that many unusual artefacts for people to admire. As I said, I did like the video, and I did learn more about local whaling practices, so I think it was still a worthwhile trip, even if this small and surprisingly expensive museum wasn’t quite all I was hoping for. 2.5/5.