Joseph August Perano was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 10 October 1876, the third of eleven children of Agostino Perano and his wife, Susan Williams. Agostino was a Picton-based fisherman of Italian extraction, and Joe followed his father into fishing. On 19 July 1904 he married Martha Ruth (Pattie) Raven; they were to have three sons, one of whom was to drown at the age of 12.
About 1904, while Joe Perano was fishing in Cook Strait outside Cape Koamaru, a pair of humpback whales suddenly rose up on either side of his boat, almost lifting the oars out of the rowlocks. This incident inspired him to begin whaling out of Tory Channel in the winter of 1911. He was joined by Frank Carrick, J. W. (Billy) Gillice, John Jackson and George Baxter. With three motor launches based at Yellerton, they competed against the last Cook Strait rowboat whalers. In 1912 Joe Perano moved his whaling station to a more advantageous site at Tipi Bay.
In 1921 Perano gave up active whaling, leaving his brother Eugenio Charles (Charlie) to carry on while he concentrated on developing farming property at Whekenui. When Joe Perano wanted to return to whaling in 1924, Charlie resisted. In response, Joe set up a new whaling station at Fishing Bay, in direct competition with his brother. From opposite sides of Tory Channel they raced each other in fast motor launches to be the first to harpoon migrating whales. The rivalry between the two brothers became so intense that in June 1927 the inevitable happened: there was a high-speed collision between competing whaling boats. The incident was eventually settled in court, with Joe Perano suing Charlie for damages and winning the case in November.
Court costs, witnesses' expenses and disbursements to Joe Perano bit deeply into the finances of Charlie and his party. This, among other factors, forced Charlie Perano to give up the whaling business, leaving the field clear to Joe. Later in 1927 Joe took over the Tipi Bay whaling station, including all its debts and two of its whale chasers, but did not operate a whaling station there. Rather, he concentrated on expanding and developing his new whaling station at Fishing Bay.
Another of Joe Perano's brothers, Alfred (Alf), was both master and engineer of the Waitohi, a steamship which Joe, Alf and Paul Brunsill built on a section adjoining the Perano family's old Picton waterfront homestead. It was operated as a tugboat and for towing whales before it was replaced in 1929 by the Tuatea, bought by Alf Perano from the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand. This was used by the Perano family for more than 30 years to pull whales from the open waters of Cook Strait and up Tory Channel to the factory in Fishing Bay. J. A. Perano and Company bought the vessel from Alf in 1945. With Picton as its home port, the 112-ton Tuatea became synonymous with whaling, and was readily identified by most Picton inhabitants for many years.
Joe Perano's Fishing Bay whaling station became a small community in its own right. Up to 32 whalers lived there with their families throughout each winter whaling season. During the Second World War a complete army camp housing 60 soldiers sprang up on Perano's Whekenui farm, which was adjacent to his Fishing Bay station. At this time he was also attempting to establish a whaling station at Eden, in southern New South Wales. The project was considered important by the Australian government for the war effort, but failed mainly because of disagreements among the Australian authorities.
The founder of New Zealand's last whaling station and last whaling enterprise, Joe Perano was credited with many modern innovations to the New Zealand whaling industry, including constructing the first power-driven whale chaser in New Zealand, being the first whaling operator in New Zealand to use explosive harpoons, introducing the electric harpoon to New Zealand, and equipping his whale chasers, mother ship and shore stations with radio telephones in 1936. On the morning of 14 August 1951, at the age of 74, Joe Perano collapsed at the wheel of the Tuatea in Cook Strait after a heart attack; he died in Wairau Public Hospital, Blenheim, three days later, survived by his wife, Pattie, and two sons.
His whaling business continued out of Tory Channel for 53 years. The last whale caught for J. A. Perano and Company was killed on 21 December 1964, off Kaikoura, at a time when the business was being run by Joe Perano's sons, Gilbert and Joseph. This was the last whale harpooned in New Zealand waters from a New Zealand ship, and the killing ended more than 170 years of New Zealand whaling. Perano Head, a steep jutting headland that rises like a sentinel over Cook Strait where Joe Perano and two of his sons whaled for more than half a century, was named after them.