Australia harpooned its last whale 40 years ago today

Ed Smidt – All Rights ReservedWhaling in Albany, Western Australia, in 1978. Photo from the book, The Last Whale.
  • Australia’s last whaling station closed 40 years ago, November 21, 1978.
  • The last whale, a female sperm whale, was harpooned the day before.
  • The whaling station, now a museum at Albany, Western Australia, is marking the anniversary of the closure with a series of events.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of the last whale harpooned in Australia.

The female sperm whale was caught near the edge of the continental shelf in the Southern Ocean off Albany, Western Australia, by the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company.

The last whaling station then closed the next day, November 21, 1978.

The three whale chaser ships went out that day but returned empty handed, spending the day firing harpoons in fun, and breaking out illicit beers, rather than hunting as they took local dignitaries on a last voyage.

The global Save the Whale campaign had destroyed the international market for sperm whale oil, then used in high speed engines.

The anti-whaling movement came to Albany the previous year, 1977, in the form of Greenpeace’s first president Canadian Bob Hunter, Australians Jonny Lewis and Tom Barber, and financed by Frenchman Jean Paul Gouin, sometimes known by his nickname, the Phantom.

“I’m proud of all of our efforts to help the whales and I truly believe Albany and its citizens have benefited greatly because of it,” says Aline Charney Barber, part of the direct action campaign in 1977 in Albany.

“Happy anniversary, Albany.”

Aline and her husband Tom Barber — sometimes called Two Harpoon Tom because he had an explosive head harpoon fired over him twice in the direct action campaign in Albany — later created the world’s first commercial wind farm in the US.

The activists in Albany made headlines round the world as they used Zodiac inflatable boats to create human shields, placing themselves between the harpoons and the sperm whales being hunted, a tactic first used by Greenpeace against the Soviet whaling fleet.

A grassroots campaign by Project Jonah, an offshoot of Friends of the Earth, worked political magic, winning a judicial inquiry into whales and whaling from then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

But in the end the whaling company preempted the results of the inquiry by announcing the closure of the whaling station on the first day of inquiry hearings.

Jonny Lewis Collection – All Rights ReservedThe 1977 protests outside the last whaling station in Australia in Albany, Western Australia. Photo from the book, The Last Whale

“The announcement was was more of a relief than an excitement,” says Tony Gregory, then with Project Jonah, who witnessed the closure announcement in Albany.

“We were hoping that any employees found other work without difficulty, and we knew that it had to happen soon — there just wasn’t the need for the products.”

The announcement was 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 maintained today.

In 1980, the Whale Protection Act formalised Australia’s switch in thinking, to be followed by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which protects all whales in Australian waters via the Australian Whale Sanctuary which includes an area around Antarctic territory.

In Albany, the end of whaling hit the town’s economy hard and dislodged the community status of those who had well-paying and well-regarded jobs in the industry.

Forty years later the whaling station is a highly successful museum, with tens of thousands of visitors each year visiting a whale chaser ship, now preserved on dry land, plus extensive exhibits chronicling the history of whaling and whales.

Part of events to mark the 40th anniversary of the closure is a musical, Drift, with a cast of international and local musicians and singers at the whaling station.

A reunion of those who crewed the whale chasers and worked in processing at the whaling station is being held tomorrow, November 21, with a lunch.

Albany’s Historic Whaling StationThe Cheynes IV whale chaser at Australia’s last whaling station.

Among those playing a role in the anniversary is Paddy Hart, who was the master and harpoon gunner of the Cheynes II whale chaser ship. He is the last survivor of the whale chaser skippers who were working at the closure.

He had to deal with the activists in 1977 in one particularly close call. As he harpooned a whale and a protesters’ inflatable boat ran over the forerunner, the line attached to the harpoon, tangling around the outboard engine.

The whale died instantly. But if it hadn’t been a clean shot, the protesters would have been tossed into the air by a thrashing 40-tonne sperm whale.

His thinking has changed over the decades. In 2008, he went to Japan, which still continues whaling, at the request of Greenpeace.

“Greenpeace asked me to come along and tell Japanese people that there’s life after whaling, and I am honoured to be there,” he then said in Tokyo.

“I have sympathy for the whalers in one sense because I’ve been in that situation. But, if whaling stops, like us, they can get on with it and find something else to do.”

A local Albany craft beer maker, Wilson’s Brewing Company, has created a special edition beer for the 40th anniversary.

The beer, Wilson Draught, carries an image of the Cheynes II, the whale chaser skippered by Paddy Hart to the end of whaling in 1978.

“They promised me a case but I think I’ll need two because everyone in the family wants a can as a souvenir,” Paddy Hart said on the eve of the anniversary.

(Chris Pash is the author of The Last Whale (Fremantle Press, 2008) which tells the story of the final days of whaling in Australia from the two points of view, those who worked in the industry and the activists who tried to stop it.)

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