Story: Robson, Frank Donald

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Robson, Frank Donald

1912–1993

Logging contractor, fisherman, marine conservationist

This biography was written by Michael Donoghue and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Frank Robson was the first person in New Zealand to study the phenomenon of whale strandings and dedicated much of his life to the conservation of whales and dolphins. Born on 29 September 1912 at Greenmeadows, Hawke’s Bay, Frank Donald Robson spent his life in Taradale, near Napier. His parents were Bertha Elizabeth Bryan and her husband, Frank Donald Robson, a gardener. Always fond of nature and the outdoors, Frank left school at 14 to work in a local orchard. On 20 July 1931, at Hastings, he married Sarah (Sally) Greenan Meechan McKie. They were to have three children. In his early 20s Frank established a tree-felling and logging business, and in 1954 he began fishing commercially in Hawke Bay. His daily life at sea brought him into regular contact with dolphins, and stimulated the fascination that was to shape the rest of his life.

When the Marineland of New Zealand opened in Napier in 1965 Frank Robson was contracted to capture its first common dolphins, and he later trained the animals for public display. He soon quit, however, after a policy disagreement with the board; he contended that decisions affecting the welfare of the dolphins were being made by people with little experience in caring for them.

Robson now became active in promoting the conservation of whales and dolphins. He began to rescue stranded whales and to dissect and examine those that had died on Hawke’s Bay beaches. As his reputation and experience grew, he travelled throughout the North Island in his Land Rover to assist stranded whales, accompanied on many of his trips by his son Bruce. In 1970 he attended the stranding of 59 large sperm whales at Gisborne, and had to kill each animal by severing vital arteries. It was a merciful but traumatising act, and one that inspired him to work harder at conservation. His international efforts to save dolphins culminated in a well-publicised trip in 1978 to Iki island in Japan, where he witnessed the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins by local fishermen who feared that the marine mammals were competing for the same fish.

Robson became skilled in autopsy techniques, and in preparing skeletons for display at museums, bleaching them on the roof of his house. A number of skeletons prepared by Robson are in museums in the Netherlands. In the early 1970s he sent a sample of dolphins (drowned in trawls) from Hawke Bay to Holland for a study on chemical contamination. This was the first systematic investigation of pollutant levels in cetaceans found in New Zealand, and the results revealed relatively high levels of DDT and related chemicals.

Frank Robson developed an understanding of whale strandings that still shapes the management of these events. The theory of the ‘key whale’, whose difficulties and distress calls are thought to trigger a mass stranding, was conceived by him. He stressed the need to keep beached whales cool, and to maintain the social cohesion of the group when refloating a stranded pod. His work was motivated and guided by his conviction that telepathic communication is possible between people and whales.

Even after the Marine Mammals Protection Act came into law in 1978, delegating responsibility for dealing with beached whales to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Robson continued to be the person most likely to be in charge at any whale stranding. The popular volunteer group, Project Jonah, founded in the mid 1970s, owes much of its public appeal to his work. His wealth of experience in dealing with beached whales was brought together in 1984 in his book, Strandings , which reached an international audience. Robson also provided much of the information for the Department of Conservation’s Marine mammal rescue (1987), when the newly established department took over the responsibility for managing whale strandings from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Frank Robson’s contributions to marine conservation in New Zealand were recognised in 1988, when he was awarded the Queen’s Service Order. He died on 30 May 1993, at Napier, and was survived by Sally, to whom he had been married for almost 62 years, a son and a daughter.