Whaling, then and now

It’s very sad that a baby humpback that beached itself on Bribie Island the other week had to be put down, but there’s no doubting the care and concern of the many volunteers who turned out to try to save it.   These days, the general public turns out in droves to see whales.  They have long been a staple of the tourist industry, but there’s nothing quite like the delight of seeing whales arrive of their own accord in Sydney Harbour.

It was different for the whale that swam up the Derwent into central Hobart in 1852.  The Colonial Times reported that

‘On Wednesday morning last much excitement was caused on the wharves by the novel appearance of a black whale which was first seen to approach Battery Point, thence swim along the New Wharf to Constitution Dock.  Crowds of people gathered, shouting ‘There he is’ and ‘Here he is’ as a whale moved along the waterfront.’  Immediately, those who could do so took to their boats to give chase.  ‘They were the first to ‘get fast’ and to plunge the harpoon into the monster of the deep.’

The dead whale was hauled alongside, and cut up for its oil.  It measured 40 feet, and was expected to yield 5 tons of oil.  Attitudes change.  In the last few days there have been reports that Japan may finally be reassessing its ‘scientific whaling’.

Beached whales were a useful, if erratic, food source for Aborigines, arriving during the winter months when other supplies were sometimes scarce.  In September 1790, Governor Phillip and his men came across people feasting on a stranded whale at Manly, and when Bass and Flinders visited Twofold Bay, they met a group eating whale.  Flinders wrote on 7 October 1798:

Soon afterward a man made his appearance.  He was of middle age, unarmed, except for a whaddie, or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence.  We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in turn presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale.  This I tasted; but watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit.

Australia has a long history of whaling.  Some of the ships of the First Fleet were whalers, and until the 1830s, whale oil was a more valuable export than wool.  It continued to be important throughout the 19th century.  In the 20th century, kerosene replaced whale oil, and plastics replaced whalebone, but the industry continued on a limited scale for another 70 years.

Oswald Brierly, Whalers off Twofold Bay

Oswald Brierly, Whalers off Twofold Bay, from Wikimedia Commons. Although the painting is dated 1867, it illustrates bay whaling in the 1840s, when Brierly was manager at Twofold Bay, near Eden.

Whale numbers were already declining in the 19th century, and the situation grew worse with the development of new, post-Moby-Dick technologies such as factory boats and mechanical harpoons.

In the 1930s nations began to demand regulation of whaling.  The League of Nations supported a Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, but over 46,000 whales were killed in the southern oceans in one year, 1937-8.  In 1939 a 10-year moratorium on killing humpbacks was declared.  The naval war probably protected whales more effectively – except for those occasionally mistaken for submarines and killed by depth charges.

The International Whaling Commission was established in 1948.  The original aim of the IWC was not to outlaw whaling, but to regulate it.  Mathematical models attempted to estimate how many whales could be killed sustainably.  Australia set up a commission to regulate the industry when humpback whaling began again in 1949, with whaling stations at Albany (WA), Eden and Byron Bay (NSW) and Moreton Island (QLD).  Inspectors visited regularly during the winter season.

At that point, the humpback population was estimated at approximately 10,000.  However the IWC’s modeling seemed wrong for throughout the 1950s, the numbers of whales continued to fall.  By 1960, Tangalooma couldn’t find enough whales to meet its allocated quota, and closed in 1962, and the final station, Albany, in 1973.

Why were the models wrong?  It was only in the 1990s, when the old Soviet archives were opened, that zoologists discovered that during the 1950s and 1960s, a Soviet whaling fleet was operating in Antarctic waters, killing large numbers of whales without any respect for the quotas imposed by the IWC.  This slaughter made the mathematical model irrelevant, and whale numbers plummeted.

Eventually, in the Antarctic as well, the numbers of whales fell so low that harvesting became unprofitable.  Since the 1970s the numbers of most species have been rising, but in some species, the selective slaughter of the largest animals has probably affected the gene pool so that individual animals are smaller than the average size in earlier centuries.

For one baby humpback, the natural risks of life proved too great, but the man-made risks are no longer a worry, and fortunately his (or her) species is doing pretty well these days.  I hope this continues.


A shorter version of this post appeared in the Weekend Australian here on 13 August 2011.

4 responses to “Whaling, then and now

  1. Have you seen Philip Hoare’s Leviathan, Marion? It’s a history of whaling rather than a natural history of whales. It is kind of a cultural history, with a fascinating mix of history, scientific facts, and many quotes and episodes from literature all across human history. Parts of it is brilliant literary criticism, as the reading of Moby Dick, for example. And its black-and-white photos, used in WG Sebald style, give everything in the book a distinct touch of history and past-ness. This is masterful aesthetics of nostalgia.

    • Hi Angi, no, I haven’t heard of it, but thank you, I’ll hunt it out. There’s a great book called Ahab’s Trade, by (I think, don’t have good Internet access here to check) Granville Mawer, which I’ve used a lot. Whaling is a fascinating story, no matter how much we may hate the thought of it these days.

  2. Pingback: Australian Whalers in Japan | Historians are Past Caring

  3. Pingback: The Last Plantagenet: another cold case | Historians are Past Caring

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