Whaling

Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales,
watercolour  by O.W. BRIERLY 1863
(held by Art Gallery of NSW)
 
In the 19th century, before the development of the petroleum industry, whale oil was a major source of illumination, lubrication and soap manufacture and helped drive the industrial revolution. It was only replaced very recently in many critical engineering applications. The baleen with which whales filter krill (small crustaceans which are their main food source) was also used to manufacture women's corsetry which was popular up until World War II.
 
At the height of the whaling industry in Eden 30 boats operated out of port and the town is famous for its whaling history in particular for the remarkable pod of killer whales (Orcinus Orca1) that assisted the whalers of the Davidson Whaling Station.
 
The friendship between man and killer whales began with the Aborigines. The local Yuin people revered the Orcas as the reincarnated spirits of their ancestors perhaps because the killers would regularly herd passing baleen whales into the bay and as a result many whales became stranded providing a welcome feast for the people as well as whale oil which was used by the aboriginal peoples in their rituals.  After the arrival of Europeans many aboriginals worked in the whaling industry and continued their traditional practice of 'calling' the killers. The local aboriginals were regarded as excellent workers by the early settlers and particularly noted for their prowess with harpoon and lance.
 

The Early Days of European Whaling

The first European whaler in Twofold Bay was Thomas Raine in 1828, his is thought to be the first shore based whaling station on mainland Australia. He was followed by the Imlay Brothers in the 1830s.
 
In the 1840s, Scottish entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd built a light house, now known as Boyd's Tower and built a new town south of Eden known as Boyd Town. Along with his other enterprises in the district Boyd set up a whaling station at Twofold Bay. The whaling operation was managed by Oswald Brierly (1817-1894), a talented artist who had come to Australia with Boyd in 1842 and left many paintings, sketches and diaries covering the years he lived at Eden. 
 
The inexperienced Brierly was put in charge of 9 deep-sea whalers, 30 whaleboats and supervised the flensing and the boiling down processes. He managed the whaling venture well but in 1848 as Boyd's empire neared collapsed Brierly accepted the invitation of Captain Owen Stanley to join him as his guest in H.M.S. Rattlesnake on a survey of the Barrier Reef, the Louisiade Archipelago and part of the New Guinea coast.  In 1885 Queen Victoria knighted Brierly for his work as a maritime artist.
 
Brierly wrote extensivly about his experiences while whaling and the following is from 'The Cetacea or Reminiscences of the Sea' held by the Mitchell Library
 
"It so happened that I was in the boat which was the first to come up with the whale which we had sighted. After the harpooner had successfully cast his harpoon and fastened to the whale it turned towards us & made a dive – him coming to the surface exactly under our boat. I shall never forget the new & sickening sensation of finding the whole boat suddenly lifted out of the water by the rising back of the whale, and the sliding gliding helplessly slipping motion of the boat as it shot down the back of the monster under us. The powerlessness of the situation flashed through the mind – oars were of no use. We were literally 'out of our element' but truly only for a moment and then as we touched water again down came the great tail of the enraged monster cutting our boat in twain with one smashing blow as a hatchet would chop a pat of butter and in a moment the whole party were plunged into a boiling eddy of foam & water made by the whale as it plunged into deep water & left us struggling for dear life, & handicapped by a thick coat and sea boots – Luckily for us assistance was at hand and beyond a ducking and a fright none of us were any the worse for the novel experience".
 
Oswald Brierly also described in his diaries the Orcas behaving much as they would later when helping the Davidson whalers but the early whalers did not reward their efforts and would drive them from the kill.  Brierly described how the Killers would sometimes drag a harpooned whale with boat attached under water when the early whalers did not honour 'the law of the tongue'.
 
Boyd's schemes proved too grandiose and by 1849 his empire had collapsed. His whaling enterprise along with that of the Imlay brothers was taken over by George Barclay and Solomon Solomons who operated until 1857.
 
Many others followed Raine and the Imlays into the whaling trade at Eden but there was one family of whalers that is particularly remembered.

52 ft long Hump-Back caught in Twofold Bay
 

The Davidsons and the Killers of Eden

Amongst the carpenters working on the construction of Boyd Town was a recent immigrant from Scotland, Alexander Davidson.  In 1857 Alexander and his son, John, began shore based whaling with boats and equipment purchased from Barclay and Solomons. With help from the killer whales the Davidson family worked in the industry for four generations.  Their boats crewed almost exclusively by family members and local Thawa men.

 

The story of Old Tom the killer whale is well known. He and his pack alerted the whalers to the presence of the whales by going to the Davidson whaling station and flop-tailing (slapping their tails on the surface of the water) until the whalers came out and joined the hunt in their small row boats. It was said that if the whalers lost sight of their guides they would slap their oars on the water and the lead Killer would turn back to ensure the whalers kept up.

 

While some of the Killers alerted the whalers to the presence of whales, other members of the pod would herd the whales into the shallow waters of the bay like dogs herding sheep. They often led the attack, harrassing, biting, driving the whales underwater where they could not breath, even attempting to cover the blow holes of the whales. Some times the Killers were less helpful and like all intelligent social animals liked to play as recalled by Effie Davidson*:

"Round and across the bay would go the whale, and round and across in hot pursuit would go the whalemen.  Now assisting, now playfully hindering the chase would go the familiar Killers - Old Tom, Hooky, Humpy, Youngster - every one of the pack was known to the men."
 
In return for their assistance the Killers were awarded a special treat; the lips and tongues of the whales, the only part of the whale ever eaten by Killer Whales (the tongue by itself weighs up to four tons). After a kill the Davidson crew would attach the dead whale to an anchor and buoy and leave it for the killer whales to take their reward.  They would row back two or three days later when the carcass had resurfaced and tow the body back to the try works at Kiah.
 
1910: Old Tom, swimming alongside a whaling boat that is being towed by a harpooned
whale (out of frame to the right). A whale calf can be seen between Old Tom and the boat.
Still from the documentry 'Whale chase in Twofold Bay' by C.E. Wellings & C.B. Jenkins, unfortunaly now lost.
 
While only a small operation (their largest seasonal catch was 22 whales) the Davidson Whaling Station was the longest running shore based whaling station in Australia. They only ever used small row boats in their pursuit of whales and never adopted the use of harpoons with explosive heads as they distressed the Orcas. Despite this and the inherent danger of the industry the Davidson's operations had comparitivly few casualties. Only one death was recorded in the 100 years of off shore whaling in Twofold bay, that of 22 year old Peter Lia. Many crew members who fell overboard believed they were protected from shark attack by the Killers.
 
By 1890 Alexander's grandson George Davidson (Fearless George), who had begun whaling at the age of 14, had became the master whaler and took over the family whaling business still using hand held harpoons and the small rowing boats. The Davidson's boats were all painted green and many believed it was this that helped the Killers distinguish the Davidson's boats from those of other whalers.
 
The Davidson Whaling Station was built on the shores of Kiah Inlet and while the origional home built by Alexander 'Kiah House' burned down in 1928 the old cottage built by George Davidson ‘Loch Garrah’ still stands. The Davidson Whaling Station has been preserved as an historic site that is administered by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
 
Davidson's try works circa 1900
                                                                                 
A Curious Cure
Even in those early days alternative medicine was practiced. The Yuin people had a rather strange cure for  rheumatism and other maladies.  They would climb into the rotting flesh of a dead whale where they stayed for hours with only their head protruding. The heat of decomposition and the whale oils were claimed to cure rheumatism and other maladies. Despite the awful stench that was said to cling to the patient for up to two weeks the cure was also practiced by Europeans as reported in the Australian Town and Country Journal in November 1894 "The Blubber Cure"

A cure for rheumatism; Bob Wiles inside the carcass of a whale, Twofold Bay circa 1910 
 
Among the many interesting anecdotes from Eden’s whaling days is the occasion when George Davidson and his Thawa crew were rowing out to tow home a dead whale (after lancing they were left until they refloated from natural gas production) and watched as one of their pod of Killer Whales, ‘Typee’, chased a Risso’s Dolphin (or ‘fat fish’) at such speed that both became stranded in shallows at the end of Aslings Beach. They immediately changed course and the crew pulled heartily in order to help their beloved ‘spirit brother’ only to see a man wading out from the beach presumably also to help. This man was a newcomer to the area and thought that the whaleboat was hunting the stranded animals and so he claimed the ‘kill’ for himself by lancing both helpless animals with a large knife. The crew were livid and the harpooner even futilely threw his weapon toward the man. Fearing their reprisals, George wisely steered the boat out into the harbour. Feelings built among whalers of all races over this senseless slaughter to the extent that the local constable ‘had a quiet word’ and the man hastily left that night, never to return.
 
Another story from 1926 when tragedy struck the Davidson family exemplifies the remarkable relationship between the whalers and the killer whales of Eden.  On the evening of October 24 1926 George Davidson's son, Jack with his wife and three young children were returning home from a dance in Eden in a small whaleboat.  While attempting to cross the bar at the Kiah inlet entrance their boat capsized. Mrs. Davidson and her daughter Marion managed to cling to the upturned boat but Jack drowned attempting to rescue the two younger children who had been swept overboard. From the nearby whaling station the cries for help from Mrs Davidson and her daughter were heard by Jack's parents and they were rescued by George Davidson and his crew. After a week of searching the bodies of Jack and the two small children had not been found.  One newspaper article reported that there was talk in the town of using dynamite to bring the bodies to the surface.  All this time Old Tom had been swimming around near the area where their boat had capsized and it was here that the bodies were eventually found. The boat which carried Jack's coffin across the bay was followed all the way by two of the killers.

The Death of Old Tom & The End of an Era

George Davidson with the body of Old To
 
The Davidson Whaling Station was the longest operating whaling station in Australia but by the 1920s the Orca pod numbers had declined drastically, due it was believed at the time to the predation of Norwegian whalers operating in Australian waters.  When the last of the killer whales Old Tom died it bought to an end a fascinating era. Without their greatest asset the Davidson's whaling operation could no longer continue.
 
Arounnd 1923 George Davidson and neighbour John Logan were enjoying a days fishing in Twofold Bay on Logan's yacht the 'White Heather' when Old Tom drove a small whale to the surface nearby and George harpooned it. With a storm on the horizen Logan said "George, this might be the last whale you get all season. If we leave it for Tom, you'll lose it."
"But what about Tom?" asked George to which Logan replied, "Bugger Old Tom!"
'The upshot was a tug-of-war between Logan and Old Tom, which led to Old Tom losing a couple of teeth.  Logan's daughter, who was with them that day, remembered her father saying, "Oh God, what have I done?" Being a former military vet, he knew what a problem missing teeth could be for a killer whale. Seven years later his fears were realized when Old Tom's body floated into the bay on September 17 1930. Examination of his mouth revealed an abscess caused by the missing teeth,  it is believed he died of starvation.
 
Old Tom's body was first sighted floating in Twofold Bay by retired whaler Allie Greg who was soon joined by George Davidson and John Logan. At the suggestion of Logan it was decided , that Old Tom's skeleton should be preserved and displayed in a museum.  George Davidson towed the body of his old friend back to shore.  At the Davidson Try-works George and his son Wallace cleaned and numbered the bones for reassembly, for which they were paid by John Logan for their time and expenses.

The Eden Killer Whale Museum

In January 1931 Logan advertised a meeting in the Magnet newspaper to discuss how to preserve and house the skeleton.  The skeleton was initially displayed at the Twofold Bay Development League Rooms in Imlay Street.  One shilling was charged for admission to see Old Tom's skeleton and seventy pounds raised from the exhibition given to the Imlay Shire Council for the funds were put towards the establishment of the Killer Whale Museum in Eden. The building of the museum was completed in 1938 and opened it's doors finally in 1939.
 
Much of the history of Eden's whaling industry has been preserved, including the skeleton of Old Tom which can be seen at the Eden Killer Whale Museum.  Today the town's main connection to the whales is through sightseeing and research, with many overseas scientists studying the marine life in the waters around Eden at the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre.
 
It has recently been established that Eden is an important feeding ground for whales, with mothers and calves stopping here from September to late November on their return migration south to the cool waters of Antarctica.
 
After Old Tom's death Orcas where not seen in the waters around Eden for many years.  In recent years there have been increasing sightings.As in the old whaling days a siren still sounds in the town when whales arrive in the bay but instead of rushing to the hunt, locals and visitors now simply enjoy the sight of these magnificent creatures from various vantage points around the bay or from the deck of one of the whale watching vessels that sail from the Port of Eden.
 

1 Orcinus orca: The term Killer Whales is used in this article as that was the term that was commonly used at the time to describe these wonderful creatures. They are in fact dolphins and were originally known as 'Killers of Whales'. On reflection it is perhaps not so surprising that they cooperated with humans in their hunting activities - they are like wolves, the ancestors of modern dogs, and indeed like our own ancestors - intelligent social mammals that engage regularly in cooperative hunting.

 

Whales Revenge, campaigned to gather 1 million signatures for a petition to stop whaling.

Wild About WhalesFollow the epic adventure of Australia's long distance swimmers as they make their next appearance along the Sapphire Coast

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Sources & further information:

The story of the relationship between the whalers of Eden and the killer whales has been made famous by the excellently researched and facinating book 'Killers of Eden' written by Tom Meade.  Firsh published in 1961 it is still in print.  If it is not available at your local bookstore or library it can be ordered online from  Dolphin Press

In 2005, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation produced an award winning documentary, 'Killers of Eden', based on the book. In 1999 the ABC's Beatrice Barnett produced a radio feature "Whaling in Eden" for Radio National's Hindsight program, interviewing those who were witness to these remarkable events.

 

Another interesting publication about Eden's whaling days is "Whalemen of Twofold Bay" written by George Davison's grandson the late Rene Davidson.  It features many photographs of the old whaling days.  Copies can be seen in the local library or can be ordered by faxing Fay Davidson at 612 64963369 or mail to Fay Davidson, 31 Maling St., Eden, NSW, 2551 Australia.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography: Entry for Oswald Brierly

 

Hawkesbury Gazette: The King of the Killers

 

Killers in Eden Nature Documentary  An very interesting PBS documentry about Eden's Killer whales posted on Youtube

 

One of the best online resources for the study of Australian history is the website of the National Library of Australia which has in recent years commenced the massive task of digitally reproducing many of Australia's newspapers.  Here if you search you will find many contemporary articles on Eden's whaling history.  Public fascination with the Killers of Eden is not new and the papers of the time regularly reported the first kill of the season for the Davidson whalers and the Killers along with many other stories concerning this subject.  

We have included links to some of these stories but there are many more you can find for yourself:

1904  EXCITING WHALE CHASE 

1928 even at this time there were calls to protect whales SLAUGHTER OF WHALES - to the editor of the Herald

1929  What must have been one of the last kills by the Davidson crew and Old Tom FIGHT TO THE DEATH - Monster Smashes Boat

Finally a sad announcement in 1930 KING OF KILLERS - Dead Body Washes Ashore

 

Another interesting website about Eden's Whaling history is Greg McKee's website 'Killers of Eden' featuring many old photos.

*Also on this site "An Old Lady Remembers": Published in Rene Davidson's book and reproduced here are the often poignant reflections of Euphemia (Effie) Davidson, wife of John Simpson Davidson as told to her niece in 1940 two days before Effie's 100th birthday.

 

Historical Images of Eden's whaling history can be found at the website of the National Library of Australia

An interesting interview with Lynne Thomas, daughter of Yuin elder Guboo Ted Thomas, can be heard at ABC South East radio.  Lynne tells some of the stories she was told by Guboo, and in rare recordings we hear Guboo telling stories of his family working as whalers in the early 20th century, and a childhood experience of being taught how to call in the dolphins so they would drive fish to the shore.

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