For many coastal Western Australians the annual migration of humpbacks and southern right whales helps define the passing of seasons. The glimpses we snatch of them spouting and leaping and resting in bays and coves have become a kind of reassurance, for the more urbanised we become the more we treasure enduring instances of wildness. And the more educated we become about ecology (even if our learning reveals how little we really know) the more seriously we take our mega-fauna. You might say that whales in particular have taught us a little humility in this regard.
When so many marine species and habitats are in serious trouble, the slow recovery of the humpback from the very brink of extinction has given us hope. The fact that they still exist has come to stand as a signal of our own cultural evolution, because we know that if we had not changed our attitudes to whaling a generation ago, and if the majority of nations had not changed alongside us, then there would be as little to see out there on the water as there was when I was a boy, when the only whales you’d glimpse were being sawn up and boiled. If we hadn’t progressed in our thinking since the 1970s, there’d likely be no passing whales at all. No whaling industry. No whale-watching. No whales, full stop.’
Tim Winton (2007)[i]
The whaling industry dominated the local economy throughout the 19th century, and is officially recorded as starting in 1800 following the arrival of the armed British whalers Elligood and Kingston.[ii] In addition to the early activities of visiting French, American and English off-shore whalers and sealers, local shore-based or ‘bay whaling’ also developed apace in Albany in the early-mid 1830s. Consequently, the State Register of Heritage Places lists nearby ‘Whaling Cove’ and its ruins at Barker Bay, near Mistaken Island, as of great significance – an exemplar of the State’s first major revenue earning industry – operating continuously from 1835 to at least 1878 – and pre-dating (general) settlement in Western Australia. This early industry is also notable for offering some of the first non-traditional forms of employment for local Indigenous men to be engaged as whaleboat crew.
Off-shore American whalers continued to work in the oceans around Albany calling in regularly until 1888. With the demise of the American whalers there was a period in which whaling activities did not flourish again until 1912, when a Norwegian company obtained a license from the Western Australian Government to operate from Frenchman Bay and Point Cloates off the west coast. Operations ceased in 1916 however, when an unprofitable season coupled with factors relating to the First World War, led to their closure.
Despite other small scale efforts to reinstitute whaling, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that a serious enterprise recommenced with the establishment of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company which operated continuously until November of 1978.
Cheynes Beach Whaling Station circa 1960*
This closure, which marked the end of commercial whaling in Australia, had been driven both by economic factors and by strong pressure from conservationists and environmentalists. A small group of protesters who had originally called themselves: the ‘Whale and Dolphin Coalition’, invited other groups to join them and this resulted in Greenpeace’s first ever direct action protest campaign outside North America – occurring at Frenchman Bay in Albany WA, in 1977.[iii]
In 1979, Australia adopted an anti-whaling policy, permanently ending whaling in Australian waters. At the same time Australia started to focus heavily on working towards the international protection and conservation of whales.[iv]
The site of the old Whaling Station at Frenchman Bay is now the popular tourist attraction of ‘Whaleworld’ ( later re-named ‘Discovery Bay’), which interprets the history of their slaughter, but now celebrates the conservation of these magnificent creatures of the deep.
*Photograph of Southern Right Whale : By Michaël CATANZARITI, [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D
*Photograph of Cheynes Beach Whaling Station courtesy Albany Library.
[i] http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/82941/20110518-0025/thelastwhale.wordpress.com/index.html Quoted extract by generous permission of Tim Winton.
[ii] Albany Museum of WA. [historical] display/interpretation notes (2013).