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Ex-whaling skippers, Paddy Hart and Chase Van Der Gaag. Behind them is the wharf their whale chaser boats used to leave from every morning during whaling season.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The Whalers of Albany
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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

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey

The Cheynes Beach Whaling station in Albany Western Australia closed down in 1978, and is now a museum that interprets the site of Australia's last whaling operations. According to company records, a total of 14,695 sperm whales were taken over a 23-year period. The same era saw enormous catches in the North Pacific where the Russian and Japanese whalers took over 211,000 sperm whales from 1961- 1971.

Paddy Hart and Chase Van Der Gaag worked as skippers and master gunners aboard the Cheynes Beach Whaling Stations catcher boats. Between them they spent almost 30 years chasing and dispatching sperm whales that were processed and sold to overseas markets. Today they share some of their past experiences with us.

Two whale chaser boats.
Photo: Courtesy of 'Whaleworld' Whaling Museum

Paddy Hart:
Hi I'm Paddy Hart, I'm sixty-two years of age and I first started whaling in Albany in 1962 on a regular basis. I actually worked as a cook, a fireman, a deckhand and second mate, first mate and then skipper. I worked my way up; I was actually a cook in the merchant navy originally.

Chase Van Der Gaag:
My name is Chase Van Der Gaag, I am seventy-one and I started whaling in 1969. I started as a deckhand on the Cheynes III, I started as a deckhand and went from second mate to mate and then at the end of 1973, I became skipper on the Cheynes II and stayed there until October 1977.

What was an average day on a whale chaser like?

Paddy Hart:
In good weather it was easy, in bad weather it was extremely difficult. High seas and a big swell with the ships lifting and the whales dropping it was extremely difficult in those conditions, but like I said there were days when it was easy.

Chase Van Der Gaag:
We used to go out about 180 - 200 days a year and I would say we would catch between 300 - 400 whales a year, maybe less. The average catch would be a bit over a whale a day per ship. There were exceptions, I caught twelve whales once, but normally it would only be a couple.

How did you find whales?

The weather was often rough in the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Courtesy of 'Whaleworld' Whaling Museum

Chase Van Der Gaag:
We started early, the ships left at 4am; we started steaming out at about 7am we were on the shelf. Then the ships lined up, one on the shelf, another five miles south just on the horizon and then the third ship another five miles further on so we covered an area about fifteen miles wide and then we would start steaming east to look for whales. In the mean time the spotter plane would come out, it started looking behind us first and then if there were no whales there they started looking ahead of us. Most sightings, about 75% of the sightings were done by the plane. When you first came up to whales, if you came in slowly enough they would stay on the surface, if you rushed in then they would dive. But if you came up slowly, normally you could get a shot in. After they dove you had to track them on sonar and some stay down for an hour and a half, the big ones not the smaller ones.

Which whales did you target?

Paddy Hart:
We were targeting the sperm whale in those days; they'd finished hunting the humpbacks.

Chase Van Der Gaag:
The bigger the better, so you would try to get out of the pod the biggest, if there were two or three you would try to get the biggest one first. There was more oil in the bigger ones, for the company it would be better, you put the same effort in but got more out of the whale. The whole whale was used, the oil was used for industrial purposes and the whale meat was used for stock feed, the whole whale was used.

Paddy Hart:
Behind the flipper is generally the best place to hit them if you could manage it, generally the big whales died instantly if you could manage it there.

Chase Van Der Gaag:
The harpoon normally exploded inside the big bulls, however with calves they quite often when straight through and then explode outside the whale.

Have you ever observed any interesting whale behaviors while at sea?

Chase Van Der Gaag:
I saw a pod of killer whales attacking a sperm whale calf and the calf was carried between two cows and was out of the water, it was carried that high. There were three cows swimming underneath but so close that it was just one massive lump of whale. But the killer whales jumped over the cows and attacked the calf. The calf was bleeding so I don't think it would have survived. WE didn't see the end of it because we left to go and catch whales, maybe we should have stayed.

Was the work on the whale chaser boats dangerous?

Paddy Hart:
Yes, in the sixteen years I was whaling, I witnessed quite a few accidents really. I was a deckhand, this is going back a bit, and I witnessed a skipper lose his leg. He'd stepped back into a bite in the rope and when he fired the gun it tore his leg off. That was quite horrific. He was actually back at work in about three months I think, he was whaling after three months. Often he'd walk down to the jetty with his leg under his arm, his spare one!

How do you feel about whaling today?

A Sperm Whale on the 'cutting up' deck at Cheynes Beach Whaling Station.
Photo: Courtesy of 'Whaleworld' Whaling Museum

Chase Van Der Gaag:
I would love to go out and look at whales but I would never shoot whales anymore, no. You do see things differently now than what we used to back then.

Paddy Hart:
Definitely I don't think there is any need for it, there is no need whatsoever for it. I reckon it would be sad to start again because we got them to the stage where they were just about extinct, the humpbacks, long before my time whaling I might add. We did at one time have a fleet of Russian whalers come through and unfortunately for us at the time, they had far superior whale catchers and we just couldn't compete. From what I saw laying dead in the water, they were shooting at anything, size didn't matter. That's one of the reasons why I wouldn't like to see whaling again. With the pelagic fleets they did have international observers at the time I think but that didn't seem to count for much.

Genevieve Johnson:
What must be a priority is to listen to these stories, to understand why commercial whaling began and was such a lucrative global industry for over two centuries. Acknowledging and learning from our history of commercial whaling is necessary to ensure that it never happens again. The future lies in observing the living whale, where the economic benefits of whale watching are already being proven in many countries around the world, it is now one of our fastest growing tourist industries.

Log by Genevieve Johnson
Whaling footage & photos provided by Whaleworld Whaling Museum, Albany, Australia.

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