A whale of a time! – a day out with Dax in Albany WA

My daughter Amanda and grandson Dax, who live in Canada, are visiting our small hobby farm near Albany WA (500 km. south of Perth). It’s a great little town that boasts no traffic lights, free parking everywhere, lots of fresh sea air and a long history (by Australian standards!) as the first British colony in Western Australia. It’s also home to the last whaling station that operated in Australia, right up until 1978. This has now been turned into a living museum of what was once the town’s biggest industry in a post-World War II recovery era.

Our quest was to take Amanda and Dax, age four, to see some interesting stuff. It was also a great excuse to overcome our ‘I live here anyway so what’s to see’ complacency and learn some new stuff about the history of the town we have lived in for almost ten years.

The route from Albany to the ‘Historic Whaling Station’ takes you down a wandering road on the Vancouver Peninsula, named in honour of Capt George Vancouver, a famous 19th century British naval captain and hydrographer. The Peninsula’s rocky terrain is covered in tough green coastal scrub that has adapted to survive the salt spray and powerful southerly winds straight from the Antarctic. The beaches are pristine white sand. The water is crystal clear and a tropical blue. But be careful – we’re in Australia and sharks hover not too far out.

On touring the whaling station grounds, we learned that whaling was an industry that seems to have started its commercial life in Norway, a nation of seafaring explorers, fishermen, warriors and – would you believe – the world’s biggest slave traders. In between all of this, they managed to fit in some time to hunt whales and develop a trading market for whale oil, meat and bone (for ladies’ corsets). The Portuguese, Spanish, English and many other nations followed the Norwegian lead and the large sums of money to be made in a world that had not yet discovered mineral oil.

Due to the massive exploitation of whale stocks, including the horrific pursuit and decimation of whales about to give birth in shallow waters, whaling is of course now banned under the terms of a voluntary global treaty. Exceptions are permitted for native hunters and tribal consumption in the Nordic countries, inclusive of Greenland and Iceland, as well as the northern extremes of Canada and Russia. The other exception is ‘scientific whaling’ which is still being used as a cover for commercial whaling by Japanese whalers. The upside is that Japanese millennials – no doubt influenced by western culture – are reportedly no longer keen on whale meat!

It was then time go on board the conserved ‘whale chaser’ ship, the ‘Cheynes IV’ that was owned by the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company and operated from the site from 1952 to 1978. The ‘Cheynes IV’ (built Norway 1948) has been hauled up and secured on the beach. From a distance, she looks like a ship just run ashore to a scrapping beach in Bangladesh. However, instead of being ripped apart, the ‘Cheynes IV’ is lovingly maintained by a small team of local volunteers. One of them, a jovial gent name tagged ‘Bill’, greeted us at the gangway. Inviting us to tour the ship, he cautioned us to watch our step as “ships can be dangerous places”. I quietly considered my 20 years at sea, 10 years as a maritime lawyer and 20 years as a P&I correspondent. “Yes Bill”, I thought to myself, “ships can be very, very dangerous places.”

On the way round, grandson Dax tried out the ship’s ultra-narrow bunks, had a go on the ship’s wheel and checked copies of the ship’s papers with his grandad in the Captain’s office. We found out the whales were tracked using sonar. Approaching their quarry, the gunner would run down the catwalk from the bridge to the harpoon gun at the bow. The harpoon, with a heavy line attached, would be fired into the whale and the unfortunate and now deceased mammal would be pumped full of compressed air. A flag and radio transmitter would then be attached to assist the whale’s retrieval later in the day and the tow back into Albany.

It was a bloody and, in today’s environmentally conscious world, a cruel and destructive trade. However, at the time, it was just ‘business as usual’ and a lot of people did very well from it. This all changed very quickly with rapid advances in petroleum oil distillation and the invention of synthetic oils. Whaling costs were also rising, including highly unionised Australian crew who expected high wages. Additionally, the global moratorium on whale hunting was increasing to include all species of whales.

The end for the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company and its many employees came on 21 November 1978 when the three whale chasers in their fleet secured alongside for the very last time. The unions howled and grown men who knew no other trade broke down and cried. The economic impact on Albany was immense, lasting almost ten years, until other industries such as tree plantations and wood chip production for the paper mills of Japan took hold. Meantime, whale stocks around the world started their slow climb back to allow many species to be taken off the endangered list.

On the way home, with Dax gently snoring in the back seat, I  mulled over what we had seen and learned about the history of whaling, its abrupt end in Albany and the effect this had on the town’s prosperity. It seemed to be a perfect  illustration of the famed allegorical business tale, “Who Moved My Cheese?” The demand for whale oil being the cheese that disappeared while the Cheynes whalers watched, waited and failed to adapt and diversify to other revenue activities. The outcome, accelerated by regulatory change, was fatal and provides a powerful lesson for all who do not analyse and then strategise to meet the future.

 Our next ‘Key Elements of Shipping’ course is scheduled for 13 -15 March 2018 in Singapore. The “Who Moved My Cheese?” allegory is just one of the many critical issues affecting the business of shipping that we will be considering along with the disruptive changes in technology that are fast coming our way. Please visit the SeaProf Course Calendar web page for more information and the opportunity to register for a really interesting learning experience.

PS If you enjoyed my family story and photos, please click on our Facebook Link to see our little slide show with more photos of Dax’s ‘whale of a time’ day out. My wife Marina was particularly fond of the harpoon gun. She thought it would be excellent for bringing me under control on my grumpier days.


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