14 May 2019

Whaling Days at Tangalooma

Every southern winter, thousands of Humpback Whales migrate from the Antarctic and up the east coast of Australia to their breeding and birthing grounds in warmer tropical waters. Thousands of people head to the coast to witness these magnificent creatures, and whale-watching generates millions for the local tourism industry, and around $70 million per annum Australia-wide.

When the Queensland whaling industry killed thousands of whales off Moreton Island.
Tangalooma, 1957. (State Library of Qld)

However, there was a time, well within living memory, when the Humpback migration generated big profits for a completely different industry. Instead of being admired and protected, the whales were slaughtered in their thousands and then stripped, hacked and boiled down for the marketplace. During 1952-62 a whaling station on Moreton Island was so successful in this task that it helped to bring the eastern Australian Humpback population to the threshold of extinction. In doing so, it sowed the seeds of its own demise, and so like any industry that depletes the very resource it relies on, the Queensland whaling business died.

Australian whaling had originally been based in the southern states, with Sperm Whales, Blue Whales and then Southern Right Whales killed for their oil, baleen and meat. The Australian Whaling commission was established in 1949 to develop the whaling industry's capacity to meet the rising demand for whale oil after the Second World War. The introduction of more efficient methods of killing whales saw an increase in the harvest rate, and there was a new focus on the east-coast Humpback migration routes.

Oswald Brierly, 'Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales', 1867.
Oswald Brierly, 'Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales', 1867.
(Art Gallery of New South Wales).

The Australian Company Whale Products Pty Ltd was formed in Sydney in 1950 for the purpose of carrying out east coast whaling, and during the following year they began construction of the largest land-based whaling station in the southern hemisphere at a 12-hectare site just north of Tangalooma Point on Moreton Island. This location had several advantages, being close to the whales’ migratory route; not far from the city and ports of Brisbane; the island was undeveloped; it was relatively protected from the south-easterly winds, and a cheap lease was available from the Queensland State Government.

Queensland whaling industry at Moreton Island.
Looking towards the new whaling station at Tangalooma from the water, 1952.
(State Library of Qld)
The company employed an experienced Norwegian whaler, Captain Alf Melsom, to manage the construction of Tangalooma Whaling Station. They also brought three whale chaser ships from Norway, and employed several Norwegians as senior crew and gunners. With payments of £250 per kill, gunning was a lucrative job.

The company's original five-year licence allowed the killing (their preferred term was 'harvesting') of 500 whales each year, with whaling seasons running for six months from May to October, depending on the migratory movements of the whales. The first season commenced at Tangalooma on 6 June 1952, with the first two Humpbacks being harpooned near Cape Moreton during that month. The annual quota had been killed and processed by October after a season of just 124 days. The harvests were so abundant that two years later the quota was increased to 700 whales.

All this meant big money, as just about every part of the whale could be turned into a saleable product. In 1954 the average whale cost about £625 to kill and process, and sold for £900. Each whale could yield more than 8 tons of oil, a valuable resource that was used to make - among other things - margarine, glycerine, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The meat was used for pet food or human consumption overseas. The offal and low-grade meat were sent to the mainland and mixed with other proteins to produce A-grade meal for livestock or fertiliser, which sold at about £80 per ton. The bones were processed to make a lower grade of stock meal. An average whale would produce about 2.75 tons of meal.

Baleen (bristle-like strands in the whale's mouth used to strain food, was shipped to France and made into corsetry, street brooms, combs and buttons.

At the station

There were a few restrictions placed on the whalers. They were not allowed to kill a whale under 11.5 metres, or one that had a calf. If they did, the gunner and captain would lose their 'kill bonus'. They also had to radio the whaling station before any kill to make sure the machinery there was all in working order, to avoid any harmful delays in processing.

The whales were harpooned from one of the three chaser ships, using harpoons with a 75kg exploding head. An 11kg grenade inside the harpoon would explode four seconds after impact. The intent was to kill the whale quickly, which was usually the case if the harpoon was lodged near the backbone, but sometimes multiple spears were required to finish the job.

The whale carcass was inflated with compressed air to keep it afloat until it was ready to tow. It was then fastened to the side of the chaser by its flukes and towed back for flensing and processing.

A Tangalooma gunner hits the target. (sylviaadam.wordpress.com)
Tangalooma Whaling Station, 1950s. (State Library of Qld)
The carcasses would be slowly winched onto the flensing deck with steel cables placed around the tail.
'The winch started up again and the whale toppled over on to its side, exposing its black, white and pale pink corrugated belly. The humpback's characteristic bumps and ridges were visible along its spine and head. Its enormous tongue of perished black rubber had sprawled out of its mouth from behind the screen of fibrous baleen plates, or whale "bones, which act as a sieve to catch food. The only signs of life on the whale's body were the tentatively waving feelers of the many barnacles which had grown along the belly and jaws.'  
There is no smell of decay on the flensing deck unless, as rarely happens, a mechanical failure causes delay in cooking. All that remains after treatment is water, or graks. Yet the smell of the whales is far from pleasant. It is a memorable odour, rather like that of a wet. very dirty dog's fur. 
Despite the great quantities of blood and offal left on the deck before ' being consigned to the cookers, there are no flies on the flensing deck. Hygiene squads have all but eliminated flies from Tangalooma.' (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1954)
A CSIRO officer would inspect each whale upon arrival and record its sex, length, and any other required details. The location of each kill was also pinpointed on a map for future reference.

The men on the wooden flensing deck then set to work, wearing 1-inch spikes in the heels of their boots to prevent them from slipping in the resulting mess. Firstly the whale was cut up with large, extremely sharp flensing knives - long-handled cutters shaped like hockey sticks. The cutters were assisted by chain men, who winched away the cut strips of blubber. Stripping the blubber usually took about one hour, beginning with ventral blubber, then the back, lower, the jaw and baleen. The carcass would then be turned over and the remaining blubber removed, the ribs separated, and the backbone removed.

The blubber was then dropped through holes in the deck and into huge (Norwegian) Kvaerner cookers beneath the deck, where it was cooked for four hours. The oil was extracted and cleaned of impurities before being placed into a separator. The end product had a honey-like colour. This whale oil was shipped in bulk to the mainland, pumped into tanks at Hemmant, and eventually pumped into ships bound for Europe.

Anything left over after the extraction of oil was fed into a Huse plant and processed into high-protein stock meal. The backbone of the whale was broken up with a large steam-driven saw, and put into huge pressure cookers through a hole in the deck along with other parts to make more stock meal.

Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Whale carcass after being pulled ashore, Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957. (State Library of Qld)
Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Workers at Queensland's Tangalooma whaling station. (Dave Schmidt, The Australian)

Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Two whale carcasses being dragged ashore at Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957. (State Library of Qld)
Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Workers at the whaling station, Tangalooma, ca. 1957. (State Library of Qld)
whale carcass at Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957
Workers with part of a whale carcass at Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957.  (State Library of Qld)
At the height of production, the station provided employment for about 120 men, with a maintenance staff of about 20 employed during the off-season.

After such a successful start, the industry was heading for trouble by the late 1950s, when the introduction of vegetable oils triggered a big fall in global whale oil prices. Much more serious than that was the decline in whale numbers. In 1961 the quota was not met for the first time, with 'only' 591 being killed that year. In 1961 light planes were being used to spot the increasingly-scarce whales from the air, and on 5 August 1962 the whaling station closed after only 68 whales had been caught that season. In the end, it was a simple matter of economics. The industry had exploited a natural resource at unsustainable levels until the resource and the profits dried up.

Over the course of one decade, the whalers had killed 6,277 Humpbacks (and one blue whale). What had earlier been an estimated local migration population of 25,000 Humpbacks had been reduced to about 500. In 1963 the whaling of Humpbacks in Australian waters was banned, and two years later they were placed on the Protected Species list. It is also thought that illegal Russian whaling in the seas south of Australia and New Zealand during 1961 and 1962 probably took nearly 24,000 Humpbacks.

The Tangalooma Whaling Station was quickly sold to Gold Coast businessmen in June 1963, and the site was converted into a leisure resort, with the the factory and flensing decks being converted into a bar and lounge area. This wasn't the first time that Tangalooma had visitors, because groups of children from schools or Scout groups used to go there during the whaling years to watch and learn about the process of whale butchering, in the company of a guide from the whaling company.

Today, the only educational whale experience that children might have near Moreton Bay is whale watching, which is booming along with the resurgent population of Humpbacks. In 2015, researchers counted about 25,000 of the whales migrating up the coast, which means they have now returned to pre-hunting population levels.