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A Cheynes Beach whale chaser boat grounded on a reef in the Princess Royal Harbour is an eerie reminder of Albany's whaling history.
Photo: Chris Johnson

March 21, 2002
Shadowing the Whalers
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

Thanks to a following sea, we made the trip south from Fremantle to the port town of Albany in just two days. In the late afternoon sun, we sailed through the heads into King George Sound, the harbor on which this town was settled in 1826. Strangely, our usually talkative crew, always excited to enter a new port for the first time, was collectively silent. The sheer cliffs stretching out into the unforgiving swell of the Southern Ocean, gave the entrance a stunningly rugged appearance. However, we were preoccupied with thoughts of a time, not very long ago, when thousands of dead sperm whales were dragged through this very same narrow passage, the South Channel.

Every day, for nine months of the year, over a twenty-six year period, three catcher boats would leave for sea at dawn, returning at dusk with their kill which they delivered to the whaling station just inside the harbor for processing.

As we lowered the sails and motored quietly toward the dock along the town front, a light rain began to shower the decks. We were to tie up here for the night before heading out at dawn-the same dock and the same departure hour the whale catcher boats used to use. The irony was not lost on us, nor had it escaped the attention of several of the locals who had arrived to welcome us, and catch our lines from the jetty; among them an ex-whaling boat skipper. We were the first boat to tie up here, and leave this harbor at dawn in search of sperm whales, without the singular intent of killing them.

The Cheynes Beach Whaling Station is now a museum.
Photo: Chris Johnson

We sailed out past Bald Head into the Southern Ocean, and were greeted by a glorious glassy swell. The wind had died down since yesterday and the ocean had put on a very different face. We were heading out to the edge of the continental shelf, only 30 miles from Albany, where, in the not too distant past, the three whale chasers from the Whaling Station would have begun their efforts before dawn, fanning out over the steep drop-off and steaming either east or west in search of their quarry.

It was not long before we heard over our acoustic array, the first familiar clicks of the whales. Within less than an hour, there were several sperm whales in sight. The group was scattered but all members were traveling slowly, and in loose association in an easterly direction. As the first research vessel to survey the area for sperm whales since the cessation of commercial whaling in Australian waters in 1978, we were elated at such immediate success, having not known whether many or any sperm whales had survived the slaughter in this area. Yet here they were, exactly where the old whalers used to find and kill them. We were seeing another example of the kind of behavior that makes whales so vulnerable to whaling: they are creatures of habit and keep returning on schedule to areas where they must have heard and seen their companions slaughtered until the numbers left, and were no longer of interest to the industry. Fortunately, the cessation of whaling by Australia had come while there must still have been enough sperm whales here to affect at least the start of a recovery.

Of the ten animals we approached to take small biopsy samples, most traveled slowly at the surface, making no evasive maneuvers. Some even turned and drifted toward us, as if curiosity had taken them. If this had been another era, and we a whale chaser boat, there is no doubt we could have been towing 10 dead whales back to the station. It is chilling to realize how easy it must have been to harpoon these animals. Although many an old whaler would have you believe his profession was a combination of wit, nobility and strength, the truth of the matter is that harpooning a whale is no more challenging than shooting a cow in a paddock.

As the afternoon wore on, we managed to collect 5 tissue samples from whales that continued on their way, having survived their encounter with Odyssey. Before the sun had set, the wind began to pick up to 35 knots and further work being impossible, we headed for shore. We continued our eerie shadowing of the life of the Albany whalers, by spending the night anchored a mere 200 meters off the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station. The station has been preserved for posterity and today you can follow the path and subsequent processing of the unfortunate animals that were dragged from the deep ocean to meet a most unceremonious and trivial end.

Roger Payne looks out over the old sperm whaling grounds from the decks of the whale research vessel Odyssey.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The following morning we went back out to sea-back out to the shelf edge where once again we were thrilled to see that these animals have endured and still survive on the old whaling grounds.

This experience unfortunately instills in us a dangerous complacency-a false sense of security. For the moratorium no longer offers these animals any security, the Japanese industry, hunting under a loophole in the IWC agreements that allows member nations to issue permits to their scientists (with or without the approval of other IWC nations) has disguised its hunters as scientists and is pretending to hunt whales to improve human knowledge about them So that once again as these whales leave Australian waters, they run the risk of becoming targets of an industry which, although it claims to be doing science, fools no one and only disgraces itself by adhering to that claim.


Log by Genevieve Johnson & Roger Payne

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