The giant whale tails materialised overnight; 80 in all throughout the city and even over at Waiheke. I’ve spotted two in my home suburb, Te Atatū. They’re big in bright, bold colours and hard to miss. Each tail tells its own tale – of its art and the artist behind it – and collectively, they focus on our moana and what is happening below the surface of the majestic blue waters that surround Aotearoa.
Eighty tail sculptures, part of WWF-New Zealand and Wild in Art’s Whale Tales project, designed by 80 artists, dot around Auckland’s streets, parks, and open spaces. These sculptures tell stories of a healthy ocean inspired by the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-dus) whale, a Hauraki Gulf resident – one of the only three places in the world to have a resident, year-round population. Unfortunately, they’re now nationally critical, with only 135 remaining.
“Bryde’s whales are, as I’ve affectionately dubbed them, the panda of the ocean,” says WWF-New Zealand’s CEO Livia Esterhazy.
“Despite being 15 metres long, they laze about close to the surface of the water and eat a lot. Unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable to plastic pollution, unsustainable fishing practises, climate change, ship strikes, noise pollution, and other human activities are also threatening the survival of this unique taonga.”
By focusing the spotlight on the plight of the Bryde’s whales and the state of their home, the Whale Tales project hopes to shine a light on this endangered species, their connection to the diverse Hauraki Gulf, and the critical role conservation plays in saving our marine environment and the Bryde’s whale.
“Bryde’s whales are an indicator of ocean health; if our whale populations are healthy and thriving, it is a sign our ocean is also healthy and thriving. Whale Tales is the story of a healthy ocean. Whales have been singing their own stories for generations and now is our opportunity to amplify their voices,” continues Esterhazy.
The project has brought together New Zealand’s artists, businesses, schools, community groups, and individuals to create a marine-themed public art installation to catalyse positive action to protect Bryde’s whales.
The trail that runs across Auckland encourages Kiwis to find a tail, unlock the code, and earn a reward – much like the augmented reality game Pokémon GO that many were obsessed with (and perhaps some still are) a few years ago.
For non-Aucklanders, a virtual trail will be launched in early February, and in March, Pēpi pod, 80 mini tails designed by schoolchildren across Auckland, will also go on display.
“Throughout the trail, there will be lots of new, exciting ways to be part of the fun. From the Vector Lights show at the Harbour Bridge to science seminars, theme weeks, sponsor activations, and the launch of the children’s book, Hauraki Broo, there are so many ways to get involved,” says Esterhazy.
The beauty of the Whale Tale project is that it also brings to focus some of the most incredible artists from around the country. They are known – the likes of Otis Frizzell, Gregory O’Brien, Cora Allan Wickliffe, Weta Workshop, and Jeff Thomson – and unknown, representing different cultures, ages, and styles, who have donated their time and talents to bring these tails to life.
Each artist was given a blank canvas and asked to design what the moana meant to them. Some used paint, some recycled plastic, and some mosaic pieces, and in Jeff Thompson’s case, it was corrugated iron.
I spoke to Te Atatū artist Kate Hursthouse, whose ‘A Splash Colour’ whale tail is at the entrance to the pink Lightpath in the city.
“My design is an abstract interpretation of the bubbles produced by whales when they are communicating and playing in the water, like small children, young and carefree. The bright colours and patterns give an essence of the fun that whales seem to have when breaching, spinning, and flicking their flukes. Much like being at a fun party in the enormous pool in Auckland’s backyard,” she says.
Hursthouse’s concept drawing was chosen by Resene, who sponsored the tail, providing the paint and materials. It took her a week to create it.
“The greatest challenge was the size of the tail. We tried to fit it around the side of my house to where my studio is, but there was no way it was going to fit. So, we made a home for it in the garage.
“It was rewarding to be a part of a great community event that supports a great cause. I think public spaces need more art, and I love seeing the public getting involved and enjoying the sculptures.”
Hursthouse has been running a creative business for seven years, doing everything from design, commercial illustrations, murals, an illustrated children’s book, and artworks.
“My foray into bright colourful abstract art is quite recent. I have always wanted to create work like this, but it wasn’t until this pandemic arrived and we went into a lockdown and I lost a bunch of freelance work that I decided to fill my time by painting.
“For me, art is a reflection of emotion, a recognition that there is always beauty among the chaos, and my goal is to help women to find their own place of joy and calm through colour and creativity.”
The Whale Tales project has brought more such artists and their art to the fore. At the heart of Britomart is a fibreglass whale tail by AUT graduate Talia Pua, titled ‘New Gold Mountain’ that shares the story of the early Chinese immigrants to New Zealand. Then there are ocean advocates Bhakti Patel and Annika Andresen who have dedicated their sculpture to plankton; it is located outside the Auckland Museum. There are more stories, more fascinating sculptures, and more artists waiting to be explored on the trail.
The final splash – whale tails to be auctioned
The art trail runs until April, and once it closes, WWF-New Zealand will have a final farewell weekend celebration at Silo Park before the sculptures are auctioned off.
The proceeds will go towards WWF’s mission to protect and restore the mauri of our ocean, including the endangered Bryde’s whale.
For more information on the project and the artists involved, visit whaletales2022.org.
The Whale Tales 2022 app, featuring the trail map, sponsor deals, activities, and a whole lot more can be downloaded via the App Store or Google Play.