Tag Archives: history of whaling

A Right Whale in the Wrong Place

Last week a boat strike killed a southern right whale – maybe two – in Moreton Bay. One mangled carcass of a young female finally drifted ashore on Peel Island, where rangers from Parks and Wildlife dragged it above the tide line ‘as high as possible…to allow its natural decomposition to continue.’ Another whale was seen still alive, but with propeller injuries along the length of its body. The calf travelling with the pair has not been seen since Friday, but will surely die as well.

corpse of a right whale

Photograph by Darren Burns of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation

The death of this whale is particularly sad because although the number of humpback whales is rising, and they are now a common sight – even in Sydney Harbour – the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) continues to struggle and the species remains on the endangered list.

The reason for this lies in the evidence of that floating carcass. Continue reading

Australian Whalers in Japan

I hate the thought of whaling, and I would love to see Japan stop killing whales in the Southern Ocean – but I can’t help feeling that the actions of Sea Shepherd are counterproductive.  ‘The insufferable in pursuit of the intractable in pursuit of the inedible’, as a letter writer in the Australian put it.

Maybe I’d feel differently if their efforts were directed to saving blue fin tuna, which really are being hunted to extinction by the Japanese, but the long line fishermen are more elusive, the photos aren’t as bloody, and we humans seem to get sentimental only over mammals. Continue reading

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.

Whalers in the Pacific

Maritime archaeologists have just announced the discovery of a whaling ship on a reef near the French Frigate Shoals, nearly 600 miles northwest of Honolulu.  And not just any ship either.

The captain of the Two Brothers was George Pollard Jr, the Nantucket captain who had lost his previous ship, the Essex, in dramatic circumstances, when it sank after it was rammed by a sperm whale, while most of the crew were in small whaleboats, away from the mother ship.  Pollard and the cabin boy were eventually rescued, but by then they had resorted to cannibalism.

The Sydney Gazette reported the details:

‘They had been 90 days at sea before they were fallen in with [by the Hope, which rescued them], and had experienced the most dreadful of all human vicissitudes; from the extremity of hunger they had been reduced to the painful necessity of killing and devouring each other, in order to sustain a wretched life, that was hourly expected to be terminated.  Eight times had lots been drawn, and eight human beings had been sacrificed to afford sustenance to those that remained; and, on the day the ship encountered them, the Captain and the boy had also drawn lots, and it had been thus determined that the poor boy should die!  Providentially, a ship hove in sight and took them in, and they were restored to existence.’

Cannibalism in these extreme circumstances was known as ‘the custom of the sea’.  Not surprisingly, it aroused fascination (it still does!), but was hedged about by certain conventions. Whatever the hierarchy within the crew, everyone, from captain to cabin boy, went in the draw. Drawing lots was morally important; it wasn’t done to pick on the weakest member of the crew.

Surprisingly, given this background, George Pollard went back to sea in another whaler, Two Brothers, the ship that has just been discovered where it was wrecked, 3 years later, in 1823.

Colonial Australia was a maritime nation, and our first contacts with America were based on common seafaring enterprises, in particular the whaling industry.  In America, the industry was based in a few New England ports, especially Nantucket.  These whalers were often reluctant revolutionaries, since they lost their markets, and their contacts with the big British whaling firms.  A few, such as the famous Ebor Bunker, even relocated to the new British colony of New South Wales.

Herman Melville recognised the Australian connection, when he wrote in Moby Dick in 1851:

‘That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman.  After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale ship touched there.  The whale ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony.’

As Melville knew, American ships rounding the Horn into the Pacific in pursuit of whales often stopped off in the ports of Sydney and Hobart. In June 1805, for instance, The Brothers from Nantucket arrived in Sydney, heading for the southern fishery.  They sailed south to fish during the short summer months, and were back in Sydney by April 1806.  (Was The Brothers related in some way to Two Brothers?  I don’t know – I’ve also found other American ships named Three Brothers and The Sisters visiting Sydney during these decades.)

The whalers were away from their home ports for years on end, so they often sailed into the Pacific with a skeleton crew, picking up replacements in Sydney and Hobart (including convicts, which could get them into trouble with the authorities).  And American sailors deserted in these ports too.

Like all hunters, the whalers followed the migration patterns of their prey. There are northern and southern hemisphere populations of humpbacks and right whales, which rarely overlap.  They spend the summer months near the north or south poles where they fatten on krill, then travel south or north towards the equator to breeding grounds to calve and mate.   This is when they are at their most vulnerable – but also when their stores of blubber have been depleted.  The trick for the whalers was to find the breeding grounds just as the whales arrived, still plump from their summer feed.  One such place is north of Hawaii, where Two Brothers was wrecked.

Alternatively they could try their luck for the greater prize, the sperm whale.  Whale oil from the baleen whales (filter feeders) was used for general purposes, such as street lighting – but was too smelly to be burnt indoors.  Baleen, the sheets of cartilage they use to filter food, was also valuable – it is the ‘whalebone’ of corsets, for instance, and was used where we would use plastics today.

Spermaceti oil, from sperm whales, was much more valuable.  It made the best quality candles (one candle watt equals the light of one spermaceti candle), and it lubricated the machinery of the industrial revolution.  Jet engines were still using spermaceti oil in the 1950s.  Sperm whales are carnivores, more intelligent, and much more dangerous, to whalers or giant squid alike.

Moby Dick was a sperm whale.  The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s novel, as well as a recent non-fiction best seller, In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The Sydney Gazette reported on that fierce tussle between whale and whalers:

And so on.  These days, for most of us, our sympathies lie with the whale, not the whaler.  But it was a cruel trade for both.


BBC News report

Granville Allen Mawer, Ahab’s Trade: the saga of south seas whaling (1999) – great title, great book!

Sydney Gazette, 9 June 1821 extracts from the National Library of Australia’s site Trove: Digitised newspapers and more