The Story Of The Australian Whaling Ship Captain Who Turned His Back On Harpooning

Kase Van Der Gaag. Portrait by Jonny Lewis. Copyright 2007

In the conservation movement there is a story still told of the whaler with a heart, the Australian harpooner who, swayed by the 1970s Save the Whale campaign, turned his back on the killing.

It is unlikely that many, except for a handful who were there, will remember his name or even believe he existed.

But exist he did.

In the town he called home, Albany, Western Australia, he was also once known as the man who put one over the anti-whaling protesters in 1977 and generally rubbed their faces in it.

The conflicting views are both, in their way, correct.

He did get the better of the anti-whaling protesters, who were weighted more toward strategic genius than operational excellence.

In a straight fight, the whale champions had no chance. This was a real seaman, trained in the Netherlands where men of the sea know their stuff, and he had a ship and a crew who knew what they were doing.

And he did turn his back on whaling, tired of the killing.

His name was Kase Van Der Gaag and he was something of a reluctant player in a pivotal point in history when Australia turned from being a whaling nation to perhaps the world’s most vocal anti-whaling people, a role proudly maintained today.

Kase died recently aged 83. The funeral, attended by many of the remaining former Australian whalers, was delayed so family could travel from the Netherlands.

Kase Van Der Gaag

Now the full story about Kase can be told.

It begins in 1930 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where he was born. He had one brother and five sisters and his father worked in a bank.

He never forgot a little sister who died during what was called the hunger winter during WWII in 1945. Kase’s family had food, but there were no medicines to help his sister.

He went to nautical college at 14 for two years, sailed as an apprentice for a year and then did his ticket to become a deck officer.

He went to sea after the war in 1949 when there was a lot of cargo to carry and not enough ships. This took Kase to all parts of the globe.

He saw Albany, Western Australia, for the first on a tug boat which had just crossed the Australian Bight.

“We had a very difficult trip through the Australian Bight,” Kase said.

“We were towing a dredge from Sydney to Fremantle. And it was shocking weather and we had a lot of damage on that dredge.”

To Kase, coming in to Albany’s King George Sound was like paradise: “The sun was shining. It was beautiful.”

He married in 1957 and had a daughter and two sons. The family moved to Australia in 1969 with Kase thinking he could find a job which would keep him closer to home.

Arriving in Fremantle, Kase bought a car, drove to Albany and got himself a job whaling.

Whaling in Australia was then a day-trip affair because the edge of the continental shelf where the sperm whales dive deep for giant squid is close to land. And Kase did get to spend more time at home.

As with so many post-war immigrants, Kase’s qualifications weren’t recognised in Australia and so he had to work his way up again to an officer’s position.

The sad joke at the time was that a seaman’s qualifications from Rhodesia, a land-locked country, were recognised because it was part of the Commonwealth, but a prestigious qualification from Holland, one of the greatest seafaring nations of all time, was not.

‘An ogre and a bastard’

By the time the save the whale activists arrived in Albany in August 1977 Kase was the master of the Cheynes II, one of the three chaser ships

He was hunting sperm whales, the massive toothed whales of Moby Dick fame, in the Southern Ocean, from the last whaling station in the English-speaking world.

He knew he was reviled by the conservationists. They were here to shut him down. “They thought I was an ogre and a bastard,” he said.

The drama played out in a wild chase across the Southern Ocean. On one side, was a group of activists in 5 metre inflatable boats powered by outboard motors. On the other, three steel ships of about 45 metres in length with fuel and supplies enough to stay out for days.

The town was then evenly divided between pro- and anti-whaling, but generally the activists were seen as ratbag hippies, probably dole bludgers who had a cheek coming here telling people what to do.

In reality, the anti-whaling players included:

  • Bob Hunter, the Canadian writer and activist who was the first president of Greenpeace;
  • The millionaire Frenchman Jean-Paul Fortum-Gouin, who was nicknamed The Phantom and who financed the anti-whaling campaign from his own pocket;
  • Jonny Lewis, an Australian photographer, son of a former NSW premier, who lead the local protest;
  • Tom Barber, an architect, who will forever be known as Two Harpoon Tom for the explosive head steel shafts fired over his head in 1977, and who later built the world’s first commercial wind farm.

Kase was at the top of his game, running a good ship and ahead of most when it came to catch rates and subsequent bonuses for the crew.

He once caught 12 whales in one day but that was unusual. Normally it was two to three a day, depending on the weather. A whale weighed 30 to 40 tonnes.

Harpooning a sperm whale off Albany, WA, Photo from the book The Last Whale: Copyright Ed Smidt 1977.

But even then he didn’t like the killing, and later in life his part in the harpooning of whales didn’t sit well with him.

“I am sorry for the whales I killed,” he would say in a quiet but clear voice, in a tone touched with a hint of sadness.

But in 1977 Kase was something of a local hero when the whaling station came under attack from a fledging Greenpeace in its first direct action outside North America.

He was celebrated when he led the anti-whaling activists across the wild seas of the Southern Ocean and away from the other two whale chaser ships.

“Kase showed them,” was the comment by those connected with the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company.

And he did, with great skill.

But another way of looking at what happened is that two activists – Jonny Lewis and Jean-Paul Fortum-Gouin — in one small outboard engine-powered inflatable open boat managed to stop one-third of the three-vessel fleet from hunting sperm whales.

Defending the indefensible

Kase’s Cheynes II was carrying a load of journalists as well as the normal crew on the opening day of the sea protests.

This role as a defender of whaling made Kase uneasy. “I had to defend the thing you can’t defend really,” he said. “Killing whales … you can’t defend it.”

He also believed the whaling company was wrong to allow journalists on board.

“You don’t take someone to the abattoir to show them how their steak is made,” he said.

“The company’s idea was to let the press see what we were doing, which was stupid. It was really stupid. It played into the hands of Greenpeace.”

The journalists had told the activists which ship they would be on, the better to report the action.

When Kase saw a Zodiac come out of the darkness of 4 o’clock in the morning, he picked up the radio and spoke to Mick Walters, the whaling station operations manager, who also flew the spotter plane above.

“I’ve got company, I’m going south,” he said.

Kase insists there was no plan, no setup, no strategy to take the Zodiac away from the other two chasers. But that’s the way it played out.

He took them due south until about midday and stopped the Cheynes II, threw fishing lines in and shouted to the Zodiac below: “I think we’re lost.”

The activists yelled back: “We’ll take you home.”

Jonny Lewis in a zodiac shadowing the Cheynes II. Copyright 1977 Jonny lewis Collection.

Kase knew that was bravado.

He’d been monitoring their walkie talkie calls with a back-up boat and he knew two things for sure: there was no back-up because the activists had lost contact; and they had no idea where they were because their compass didn’t work.

The whale chaser was the activist’s only salvation, the only way to find the way back to shore which was somewhere over the horizon. But which way?

On the Zodiac, activist Jonny Lewis remembered the dawn revealing more detail of the whale chaser and its crew.

He saw a looming dark ship manned by what looked like pirates. At that point he decided that if they got in trouble there was no way he would get on board. He would swim and didn’t care how long it took.

“The sea was very smooth, it was very gentle, an absolute deep green colour to the sea. The angels were on our side,” Jonny said.

King George Sound, WA. Photo Copyright 2007 Jonny Lewis.

Kase radioed the whaling station for permission to stay out overnight. They agreed.

He loved being at sea. There was a calmness about it. He was comfortable and happy.

But after a few hours, Kase sensed there was something wrong. He headed back to land, telling the activists to follow him.

After tying up at the town jetty, Kase drove around Mt Clarence to the Esplanade Hotel at Middleton Beach where he knew the activists were staying.

A storm was already starting to come in and Kase was glad he’d come back in. Those two in the Zodiac wouldn’t have survived the night.

The two sides had a beer together

In the pub, Kase got into a conversation with the Canadian Bob Hunter and the Frenchman Jean-Paul Fortum-Gouin.

They drank and argued, Kase telling them they’d picked Albany because it was a soft target.

And, he told them, Canadians are killing thousands and thousands of seal pups.

The Americans were killing 250,000 dolphins a year while they were catching tuna.

Why were they going after them?

Bob Hunter talked about how the world needed to respect the environment and Jean-Paul talked about the beauty of sperm whales.

Everyone in the bar watched but tried not to be seen doing so.

Kase was a respected person in the town and it was unusual to see him in that bar, let alone talking to the people he was fighting.

And there was tension between several whalers and activists who were scattered round the bar.

Decades later Kase would recall that Bob was a “nice bloke”. The Frenchman was a little on the aggressive side, he said.

Many saw that meeting in the pub and it is now part of the town’s oral history: the day Kase led the activists around the Southern Ocean, actually saved them by leading them home and then he turned up in the pub to have a beer with them.

What they didn’t know, and Kase didn’t want them to know, is that he continued to meet with the activists, sometimes coming to his place for meal.

Kase wanted to know what made them tick. Why they did what they did.

“We drank a lot of red wine,” Kase said.

“He (Jean-Paul) told me lots of things I didn’t know about whales. The sperm whale has the biggest brain on earth. Also that they have a complicated language. You can hear the clicking sounds they make but you don’t really know what the purpose of it was. And they think they have two nervous systems but nobody knows what it is for. And I didn’t know all those things. If they tell you that it’s a very intelligent animal, then it makes it easier to say goodbye to whaling.”

The activists’ offer

After one exceptionally heavy night which left more than one empty wine bottle, Kase woke to find a cheque on the kitchen table.

It was from Jean-Paul, the Frenchman known as the Phantom, who at that time was said to be a millionaire.

The Phantom later said he spent $100,000 of his own money on the Australian Save the Whale campaign. To put this in perspective, at that time in Albany you could buy a modest house for $10,000.

What Kase found on the table was a cheque for $5,000 and a note saying it was a sign-on fee.

If he took the cheque, Jean-Paul would finance a ship for Kase. He could pick his own crew and together they would go hunting the Soviet whaling fleet.

Kase returned the cheque.

He couldn’t turn his back on Albany. “I’ve got to live in this town,” he would later say.

Soon after the protests, Kase quit whaling went to Robe River in the North West as a tug master.

It wasn’t an easy move and it meant he would be away from his family, his three children, and a lot more.

Ironically, it meant that Kase had a good job while his former colleagues at the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company lost out when whaling stopped in November 1978 after the market for sperm whale oil collapsed. Buyers, on seeing anti-whaling protests across the world, quickly moved to synthetic substitutes for sperm whale oil, which had been used for high speed gear boxes.

In retirement, Kase lived in a cottage off the Frenchman Bay Road opposite Princess Royal Harbour, the same road which leads to the whaling station which is now a museum.

He liked animals and his yard looked like a small farm. He had a couple of miniature horses which he had to fence in because they kept trying to get into the kitchen.

Kase and horses. He kept minatures. Photo by Nicky Guretti.

At the right time of the year, he would be seen early in the morning on Marine Terrace overlooking King George Sound, spotting the humpback and right whales. “The humpbacks are trusting people now,” he said.

He likened seeing into the eye of a live whale as coming before God.

These whales have come back to Albany. During the whaling days, even though these baleen whales weren’t being hunted, it was highly unusual to see them in close to land.

The spiritually-inclined, and they are many among the world of whale lovers, would say that they’ve returned because they know it’s safe.

That may or may not be so, but it is true to say the humpback and Right Whale populations have returned since Australian stopped hunting them in the 1960s.

First meeting 30 years later

In 2007, thirty years after the protests when Kase clashed with the anti-whalers, he finally met Jonny Lewis, the Australian activist in the Zodiac with the Frenchman that when the sea battle opened.

Kase had spent many nights with the Canadian and the Frenchman but had not met Jonny, who tended to stay out of the bar and get more sleep, the better for early morning starts using himself as a human shield between sperm whales and harpoons.

When Lewis arrived at Albany’s tiny airport, Kase was there to meet him. Also with him was Paddy Hart, another former master of a whale chaser.

Lewis found it an emotional meeting and told them it was great to see them.

There were apologies all round.

Later, he told Kase: “It was hard for you people. We were the smart-arsed guys from the East Coast to tell the Western Australian people what to do. And that doesn’t sit well with me. That’s why I think it’s good that we’re talking.”

Kase said: “Maybe I feel guilty for the whales I killed. I’m not happy with what I did but it’s history.”

He told Jonny the Cheynes II was a happy ship with a good crew.

“It was a good job, it was an exciting job, but the killing part was no good,” he said.

“You can’t get a clean kill when you’re on a moving ship, up and down, the whale is on a different swell. And the thing is you can’t shoot them in the head or anything like that — so it’s a horrible death. And that, one-shot kill, it happens but not all of them. No, they die hard.”

Jonny asked Kase if there was anything he wanted to ask.

“No. I’m just glad to see you,” Kase said to Jonny.

“Yeah, me too.”

“It’s like closing of the chapter type of thing,” Kase said.

“Yeah. And moving into the new one,” said Lewis.

The next day they led an International Fund for Animal Welfare protest at Middleton Beach in Albany, where the Zodiacs were launched in 1977, against plans by Japan to catch 50 humpback whales.

Kees (Kase) Van Der Gaag
Born: October 17, 1930
Died: May 20, 2014
He is survived by his children Carolien, Pieter and Bart and his grandchildren Holly, Salwa, Rowan, Joel and Ellen.

Jonny Lewis (l) and Kase Van Der Gaag in 2007. Photograph: Copyright 2007 Chris Pash

(Chris Pash covered the protests in Albany in 1977 for the Albany Advertiser newspaper. His book, The Last Whale (Fremantle Press 2008), chronicles the last days of whaling in Australia and the lives of the activists and the whalers. Much of the material for this article is not in that book and was collected during interviews and discussions with Kase Van Der Gaag over a ten year period. Some of Kase’s memories from childhood come from an oral history in the National Library in Canberra. The meeting with Jonny Lewis in 2007 was recorded in an interview conducted by Chris Pash for Albany Voiceprints, a local project then run by Rod Vervest and Kim Lofts. The information about Kase’s deeper interaction with the anti-whaling protesters came from Kase himself. Bob Hunter, the first president of Greenpeace, died in 2005. Jean-Paul Fortum-Gouin, the millionaire known as The Phantom, in recent years returned to activism again to protest Japan’s whaling in Antarctica.)

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