From Whaling to Whale Watching: Albany, Western Australia
Albany is on the south coast of Western Australia. It was once home to one of the most successful whaling fleets in the world. It is located on the Southern Ocean, with safe natural harbours and a small town—an ideal place to house a successful whaling operation.
These days, it's an ideal place to go whale watching. And you don’t have to be on a boat to see the whales. They come into the sheltered bays and can be seen from beaches and headlands throughout the area.
Cheynes Beach Whaling Company
At its height, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company operated three chaser boats. They worked for nine to ten months of the year during the annual whale migration from Antarctica. Whalers left early in the morning. They steered their vessels south to the edge of the continental shelf some 30 or 40 nautical miles from the coast to arrive by dawn. Once there, they turned east in seek of migrating whales. At the same time, spotter planes flew overhead and radioed whale sightings to the fleet.
Humpback whales, Southern Right whales and Sperm whales were hunted. The population of Humpback whales decreased from more than 40,000 to as few as 500. The species was declared as protected in 1962. At this time many whaling operations were closed.
As the Cheynes company had the option of hunting Sperm whales which are also found in the area, they continued their whaling operations. Cheynes Beach Whaling Company was the last whaling station to operate in Australia.
Anti-whaling protests began in the 1970s. As Greenpeace grew in strength and numbers, the price of whale oil dropped. This reduced the profitability of whaling and the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company ceased operation in November 1978.
The three whaling boats – Cheynes II, Cheynes III and Cheynes IV were tied up at the town jetty and the factory was closed and abandoned. Cessation of whaling caused hardship for the families who were dependent on the industry for their livelihood. At its peak, the company employed 100 people on the boats and in its factory.
Since 1979 whales have been protected in Australian waters. While some species are still considered vulnerable or endangered, populations have recovered. Whales can often be seen from shore on both the east and west coasts of Australia as they make their annual migration.
The Historic Albany Whaling Station
In 1981 the Cheynes IV was towed to the site of the whaling station near Frenchman’s Bay, and an overhaul of the station and factory began. Cheynes III had the engines removed and was deliberately sunk and is now used as a diving wreck. Fish love shelter and it has become the home to many different species.
The whaling station now operates as a museum with either self-guided or operator guided tours operating daily. It is owned by a not-for-profit organisation, so all funds raised are used to either run the museum or for improvement and new exhibits. I visited the museum for the first time today and found it fascinating. Several whalers now volunteer at the museum, maintaining the exhibits, and can provide some valuable insights.
Cheynes IV was built in Norway in 1948. It is 48.5m in length and has beam of 9m. It was powered by a No. 5 Fredrikstad steam motor – one of the last innovations in steam engines. The Cheynes IV had a maximum speed of 15 knots and was able to accommodate a crew of 20. Other equipment included a radio and sonar equipment – the latter was originally designed for detecting submarines.
The Life of a Whaler
Workers on the whaling boats started work early in the day in order to reach the edge of the Continental shelf by dawn. The Southern Ocean can be treacherous at times with swells up to 10 metres and gale force winds. If conditions were too dangerous, the boats did not go out and crew were paid only minimum rates. When the boats did set out, they seldom arrived back until between 8 and 10 pm. It was hard work, and dangerous, but well paid.
The skipper of the boat was also the gunner. Once the boat was within range, he would fire a harpoon into a whale. Often a second harpoon was necessary to kill the whale. Once it was dead, it was brought alongside, and the tail cut off with a flensing blade. Whale boats could tow as many as 12 whales back to the whaling station.
Processing the Whales
Great white sharks, eager for a feed, followed the whale boats biting huge chunks from the whales. To prevent the sharks from eating too much whales were winched onto the flensing deck using massive winches. The whales weighed as much as 50 tonnes each. Once the whales had been hauled onto the flensing deck, factory hands took over, flensing blubber from the whales to be made into whale oil.
Later, other parts of the whale were broken down and processed to produce a range of products including whale meal. Whale oil was the main and most lucrative product. It was used for lighting, cooking, by NASA and in Swiss watches. At one time the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company produced 60% of the whale oil for the world market.
Once the blubber had been processed into whale oil, it was kept slightly warm in huge tanks ready for loading onto ships. Today these tanks are used to house cinemas which are motion activated. I’m afraid I didn’t see this part of the exhibition. Although the tanks have been empty for more than 40 years, the smell of whale oil still prevails.
Whale and Dophin Skeletons
One of the old factory buildings houses the skeletons of whales and dolphins. These have been recovered from animals which died of natural causes and whose bodies were found on beaches throughout Western Australia.
During one school holiday in the early 1970s, we visited the whaling station when it was still operational. Several whales had been killed and were brought to the station. They were winched from the water onto the flensing deck with huge bite marks showing where great white sharks had feasted on them. The smell was dreadful, and the sight of the whales being flensed of their blubber with blood flowing freely was an unpleasant sight. I understand that this was people’s livelihood, and it took place in a different time.
But I prefer the sight of whales swimming, basking and playing around Albany’s coast. I have been out on two whale watching boats. I have seen humpbacks swimming and cavorting in the ocean and females with calves alongside in the protected bays of the area. I have been delighted to see whales swimming and feeding as I walk my dogs along the beach. The inhabitants of Albany consider themselves very fortunate to see these amazing animals making their way along the coast. And these days, the eco-tourism from whale watching generates far more income from them than the old days of whale hunting.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Nan Hewitt