Western Australia Whales

David Whitley gets a taste of Australia’s dark whaling past, and realizes why the only boats going after whales now don’t have harpoons.

The bay is awash with blood. Sharks, whipped into a feeding frenzy, surround the boat, as the men on board battle to drag their precious haul ashore and keep it intact. Gunshots ring out above the howling wind, a shoot-to-kill policy adopted to keep the circling predators away. To go overboard now would be instant death, as it has been for colleagues in the past.

This scenario, mercifully, is at least half a century out of date, from back in the day when hunting whales was a lucrative way of life. But, at Whaleworld in south-western Australia, it’s not difficult to find yourself going back in time. Now a museum, this site was formerly home to the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, and it’s not difficult to surmise that it must have been a stinking hellpit.  Before lack of demand for whale oil and international hunting restrictions ensured that whaling was a deeply unprofitable business, the windswept coastline of the Southern Ocean had big bucks swimming alongside it. The whaling industry was a major breadwinner in Western Australia’s first town, Albany, and though the work was deeply unpalatable, it was work nonetheless.

Whaleworld doesn’t beat about the bush in explaining how much of a thankless task it was too, and as you go through the old station, recordings from that bygone age act as a particularly unpleasant time machine. The flensing deck is first up, and this was where the captured beast was hauled onto from the boats to be unceremoniously hacked to pieces. Starting at 4am, the flensers, caked in blood, flesh and saltwater would reduce the ocean giants to carcass with the sort of knives that would bring most of us out in a cold sweat. It wasn’t only the whales that got butchered; fingers were routinely severed and limbs regularly sliced open. The worst assaults would have been on the nose though. The flensing deck, as with the rest of the station, bore the overriding stench of death. The company closed down their operations 28 years ago; it’s taken almost this long for the sun to bleach the deck clean and the wind to blow the smell away.

These days, everything is far more sanitised, and the station has had millions of dollars thrown at it to make it into an attraction. It drips with technology, from the restored ships to the processing factory and storage tanks. Some of it is unnecessary – the size of the ovens in which bones were melted down speaks for itself – but from 3D movies to interactive displays, the intention is clear: more money can be made from learning about whales than slaughtering them. It’s a principle that is carried on down the road in Augusta. This is one of Australia’s corners, and it’s where the Southern and Indian oceans meet. It’s also one of the country’s prettiest coastlines, with the granite headlands surrounding Flinders Bay quite wonderful on even the bleakest winter’s day.

Between June and September every year, the bay is home to humpback and southern right whales, who have ventured north from the Antarctic in order to mate and generally warm up a bit. It doesn’t take long to spot one either. The crew of the Cetacean Explorer have around 20 eager helpers, ready to believe that any slight ripple in the water is their quarry, but the assistance isn’t really needed. They know where to look

These people are seriously knowledgeable about their whales, and the tours are almost run as an excuse to research their behaviour rather than a business. They know most of the bay’s inhabitants by name, recognisable from various markings and shark bites.

They observe the rules about approaching the whales very strictly too – if the target is not showing interest in being observed, or goes to hide under the water a couple of times, then it is time to move on. This is the case with our first sighting. Initially looking like a boulder, upon closer inspection it’s an adult southern right. Not a particularly sociable one, however, as he disappears soon after we get close and switch cameras on.

This is not the case further round the shore, however, and here we strike gold. What initially looks like one whale turns out to be two, a mother and a newborn calf. The youngster is exceptionally playful, and keeps popping up at all angles, then dipping away again just as the flashes go off. That would be another photo of a slight ripple, then… Eventually his mum, perhaps affectionately and perhaps through sheer exasperation, collars him. It’s an incredibly moving moment; it looks like she’s giving him a hug. You can see the close bond between the two through the clear waters, and it’s magical, worth immeasurably more than all the oil and whale meat in the world.



By David Whitley