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The invention of the exploding harpoon and the modernization of whale chaser boats, meant whalers were no longer restricted to the inshore species.
Photo: Courtesy of 'Whaleworld' Whaling Museum

The History of Whaling in Albany, Australia
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Note: Pleased be advised that some of the images of whaling in this video are graphic and may be disturbing for some viewers.

Video Transcript

Australian News Footage from the 1950s:
"The days of old-fashion whaling are gone. The invention of the harpoon gun and a ship design and construction coupled with efficient treatment methods have made modern whaling an industry capable of contributing much to the needs of mankind. Each year the guns of the chasers will crack, harpoons will hurdle out to bring quick death to hundreds of thousands of humpback whales that migrate from the bleak antarctic to the warm tropical seas. Each year, Western Australia will benefit from an industry that has waited for years for efficient exploitation by the Australian people."

Genevieve Johnson:
This Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Albany, in Western Australia. For almost two centuries, whalers from around the globe came to the waters of King George Sound and the surrounding areas for the same reason to hunt right whales, humpback whales and sperm whales. The last working whaling station [in Australia] only closed in Albany in 1978.

This vast natural harbor on the remote southern coast of Western Australia has a rich and sometimes violent maritime history. Whaling was Australia's first industry and was well under way before official settlement took place. Many ships that brought convicts to Australia returned home with a hold full of whale oil.

The 'head saw' on the 'cutting deck' of the Cheynes Whaling Station.
Photo: Courtesy of 'Whaleworld' Whaling Museum

Soon after Albany was settled in 1826, some of the locals tried their hand at the arduous and lucrative trade of bay whaling, setting up stations at a few sheltered beaches, the slow moving southern right whales were an easy target in the shallows. Albany itself prospered from the trade with these early whalers and with visiting ships.

After the invention of the exploding harpoon by Norwegian whaler Svend Foyn in 1865, together with steam powered chaser boats, whalers were no longer restricted to taking only inshore species.

In 1952, the Cheynes beach Whaling Company in Frenchman Bay commenced operations with advice and equipment supplied by the Norwegians. Using the whale catcher boats, the Cheynes II, III and IV, the whalers took an average of 86 humpbacks a year until a ban on hunting that species came into effect in 1963. In 1955, they had begun to take sperm whales, which now became the focus of the whale chasers, and catches steadily began to rise.

When whales were plentiful, work went on at the station around the clock, seven days a week. Steaming out onto the continental shelf at 4am, it took the whalers 3 hours to reach the hunting grounds where they were joined by the spotter planes. The aircraft pilot would radio instructions to the master gunner once the quarry was sighted. The chasers would manoeuvre into the pod and select a whale, if the animals dove, they were followed by sonar until they surfaced. The gunner on deck would signal the man at the wheel to get the boat into position and would wait for an opportunity. When the whale was at 150 feet or less, he would sight and fire the harpoon gun on the bow.

Once the 140 pound harpoon with an exploding head had been fired into the whale, it was secured to the chaser and there was no escape. The whale was then brought alongside and pumped full of compressed air with a hose to keep it afloat while whaling operations continued. Cuts were made in the tail to signify the number of the whale caught that day and which chaser caught it.

The 40 - 50 foot carcasses weighing over 40 tons were hauled onto the flensing deck where fisheries inspectors took samples and collected data from every whale.

It in mere 90 minutes, a whale on the 'cutting up' deck would be processed.
Photo: Courtesy of 'Whaleworld' Whaling Museum

The flensers wore cleated work boots, which were necessary in assisting them grip the whale carcass as large pieces of blubber were cut away with long flensing knives. The head was cut off on the flensing deck and a winch was used to drag the head and all large pieces of the whale up onto the 'cutting-up' deck, ready to be cut up for the cooker. The head was cut under the 'head saw' into small pieces that would fit into the cooker. Nothing was wasted. Only the jaw was not put in, it was boiled and the teeth extracted and sold. In a mere 90 minutes, the entire whale had disappeared from the deck. The work for these men in breaking down the whale was strenuous, smelly and dangerous, the decks were slippery due to blood, fat and other whale remnants and no company would give the men insurance cover.

Once the lid was screwed down onto the cooker, it took 3 hours for everything to render down. It was then transferred to settling tanks where the liquids were drained off. The remaining solid mater was dried and ground up in the whale meal plant, bagged and stored ready for transport. The crude oil was pumped into huge storage tanks to await collection.

An average sized sperm whale could yield between 6 and 7 tons of oil, and nearly 5 tons of whale meal and solubles. Every 3 - 4 months during the season, a ship called at the station and took away approximately 600 tons of oil to refineries in Britain and Europe where is was used mainly as a blend in specialized lubricants. The meal was used as stock feed. Les Bail explains:

Les Bail - Whaleworld Whaling Museum Manager:
"There was 121 people employed directly on the site between the three ships and the land based crew, the flensers, the office staff, the administration and the truck drivers etc... I'm led to believe that indirectly it could have been as high as 700 because the ships had to be provisioned, equipment had to maintained and there were small buisinesses in town whose entire buiseness was based on the whaling station, they relied on this industry."

Genevieve Johnson:
In 1978, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station took its last sperm whale and quietly closed after a government inquiry into whaling and increasing pressure from conservationists. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser declared that "Australian whaling should end, and that, internationally, Australia should pursue a policy of opposition to whaling."

Today, Australia together with New Zealand whose pasts included some of the bloodiest whaling traditions in history, are acknowledged leaders in the ongoing battle to end commercial whaling.

The old time whaling reached a peak around 1845, with close to 300 ships working in the area. Some were British and French but the majority were American whaling fleets from the famous ports of New Bedford and Bridgeport, Massachusetts who had come here to catch whales in the Southern Ocean. Pictured above is the remains of a Norweigan shore-based whaling station in Albany.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The Cheynes Beach Whaling Station has now been converted to 'Whaleworld' - the largest whaling museum of its kind. It is an important part of Australian history and preserves an era when people's attitude toward whales was much different. Whaleworld has been established to educate people about Albany's whaling history and the people who relied on it. The premises and all of its original equipment remain as a vivid reminder of a past that we can all learn from, to aid in the protection and conservation of these great creatures. The museum is now visited by thousands of people a year who flock to Albany to view these enormous mammals from the decks of whale watch boats.

Les Bail - Whaleworld Whaling Museum Manager:
"I think historically, [the station] is extremelly important to this community. Whaling has been a part of Albany's history since before settlement and it has followed it through the evolution of the town. We have relied on it for a lot of our income. We still rely on the income now from whales now if you want to look at it that way. If you combine the station here as museum, that receives 70,000 visitors a year, with the whale watch industry that is growing every year, we can probably contribute as much back into the local economy as it used to in the whaling days."

Genevieve Johnson:
Stay tuned for the next Odyssey log when we meet two of the ex-skippers who worked on the whale chasers at Cheynes Beach Whaling station.

Log by Genevieve Johnson
Whaling footage provided courtesy of Whaleworld Whaling Museum, Albany, Australia.

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