Some stories are better than fiction.
In Eden, where we now live, people have had a long relationship with the sea and the sea’s creatures – especially whales.
The earliest inhabitants of the area, the Thawa people of the Yuin nation, conducted ceremonies and feasts in honour of killer whales – orcas – whom they called Beowas; “brothers” or “kin”. Because these mammals are marked black and white like corroboree dancers, they were believed to be warrior ancestors: “reborn from the dreaming to the sea”. This belief was reinforced by the orcas’ practice of herding seals and other sea animals into shallow waters, making them accessible prey for the Thawa.
The first European whalers set up in Twofold Bay in 1828, and the town itself was established not long after. Before the development of petroleum-based products, whale oil was burned for light, or made into clean-burning tapers and candles. It was also used extensively for lubrication, tanning and soap manufacture, while the baleen was used in the making of corsets and parasols.
Of course, in those early days, whaling was a much more even-handed battle, with the shore-based whalers, armed only with harpoons, rowing open wooden boats out after the longer and much heavier right whales and humpbacks.
Some of the Eden whalers had help in their hunt of these massive prey: every year in late autumn, killer whales would swim to Twofold Bay from the waters of Antarctica and wait for the baleen whales to pass on their annual migration north to breed. When baleen whales were found, one of three separate pods of killer whales would routinely alert the men at the Davidson whaling station, assist them in herding – or even killing – the giant animals, and then take their reward of lips and tongue before leaving the rest of the carcass to the whalers. Although orcas routinely hunt in well-organized packs, this is the only place in the world where they have collaborated with man. There are numerous, well-documented stories of the symbiotic relationship between the whalers and the orcas; a relationship which started to break down in the early 1900’s.
The best known and most loved of these orcas was Old Tom, a 22-foot male who was reputed to be well over 70 when he died. (Some scientists have claimed that tooth-ring study demonstrates he was about 35, and they suggest that more than one whale was responsible for sightings of Old Tom’s distinctive dorsal fin over a period of 70+ years. Other scientists say ‘ageing’ of mature whales is an inexact science at best, and no one knows how long killers live.) When his body floated into Snug Harbour in 1930, it was decided to preserve his remains, and build a museum to house them.
This single event marked the beginning of the Eden Killer Whale Museum, and signalled the end of Eden’s whale industry.
The orcas disappeared from Eden waters after the death of Old Tom and are a much rarer sight these days. The last Eden whaling operation closed in the late 1920s, when baleen whale numbers were already declining from operations elsewhere (The Davidson station usually netted about eight whales a year: significantly fewer than the larger commercial operations, even at that time.) Whales and dolphins have been protected in Australian waters since 1979, and every year the humpbacks pass through Eden’s sapphire blue waters in spring – with no whalers and very few orcas to harass them.
We hope to be back to catch some – with our cameras – on their next passage.
Maybe we’ll even see descendants of Old Tom!
Till next time.
Pictures and visit: 18 March 2012