Whaling was Albany‘s (and indeed Australia‘s) oldest industry, and well before official settlement took place our shores were visited by British, French and then American whalers. Many of the ships, which brought out the convicts to this country in its early days, were whalers, which would unload their human cargo and then carry on whaling.
This arrangement worked well as there was no other cargo available in those days for the return voyage.
It was the presence of French warships, which followed their whalers into this area that was the reason for Major Edmund Lockyer being sent to found the first permanent settlement on the Western half of the continent. This settlement was first called Frederickstown but was later changed to Albany. It is interesting to note that the ship that brought Lockyer and his party to Albany later became a whaler.
Soon after official settlement in 1826, some of the settlers took up this arduous but lucrative trade and set up bay whaling stations at a few sheltered beaches, mainly to the east of the town. Albany itself prospered from trade with these early whalers and with visiting ships, although many of these avoided the port itself and put in to Two People‘s Bay and elsewhere to avoid paying harbour dues.
Old whaling reached a peak around 1845 when there were approximately 300 whale ships (mostly American) and numerous shore stations operating along the South Coast of Australia. The numbers declined rapidly after 1859 when petroleum oil was discovered in Pennsylvania with only a handful remaining after the turn of the century. Men no longer had to spend up to four years at a time at sea and risk their lives almost daily to provide oil for the world’s lamps. All they had to do now was to drill a hole into the ground.
In 1912 a Norwegian company obtained a license from the Western Australian Government and operated from both Frenchman Bay near Albany and Point Cloates off the west coast. They did quite well for a few years with the then quite modern steam chasers fitted with the harpoon gun invented by fellow countryman, Svend Foyn (left).
A collection of photos taken of the Norwegian Whaling Station in Frenchman Bay, Albany Western Australia
After a poor season in 1916 and because of pressures both in Australia and Norway, due to the First World War, they closed down and went home. The next attempt at whaling from Albany was just after the Second World War when an ex air-sea rescue launch was fitted out for whaling. Due to lack of capital and suitable equipment, this company closed down its second year of operations after having taken only a few humpback whales.
In 1952, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company commenced operations with a second hand chaser obtained from Norway and a small quota of humpback whales. As the humpback season was limited to June, July and August each year on their migration from the Antarctic the company also sought sperm whales further out to sea off the edge of the continental shelf.
Due to over fishing by several countries operating large factory ships in the Antarctic it was necessary to ban the taking of humpback whales after 1963. Sperm whales were only taken between March and December with the remaining period taken up by leave and maintenance.
The Company operated three chasers and a spotter aircraft, which arrived on the continental shelf just after daylight each morning, weather permitting, and hunted until dark.
As the shelf is only 20 to 30 miles off shore, the chasers returned to Albany harbour each evening and dropped their catch at the whaling station on the way through. Flensing, or cutting up, commenced at 4 am the following morning and everything except the teeth went into the giant pressure cookers. After cooking, the oil was extracted and the remainder of the whale made into high protein powder, which was added to stock and poultry food.
Then due to pressure from conservation groups and a depressed market for whale oil the Company decided in July 1978 to cease operations at the end of that season. The last whale was taken at Albany on the 20th of November 1978.