Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Last Whale

When I was seven or eight the whaling industry closed down in Albany.  I had an awful haircut thanks to an aspiring teenage hairdresser down the road. I had to walk what felt like miles and miles to the bus stop.  Mrs Marshall glared at me when I yelled at Simon for being a prat. Every kid I knew, their parents worked at the meatworks, the whaling station, on fishing boats, the fish factory, or else they were cleaners at the school.

The birth of Greenpeace in Australia?
Where was I?

Anyway, the point of this post is that Chris Pash's The Last Whale, the story of the last whaling operation in the Southern Hemisphere and the first Greenpeace action, has just been broadcast as a great radio documentary. It includes the testimonies of the old whalers and protestors from 1977. You can download the podcast here.

Were you involved with the whaling, or the protests, or can you give me a picture of what your life was like in Albany in the 1970s? Really, I'm curious.


  1. I wish I could tell you but by I was moved up to Perth in 1969 and didn't return to Albany untl 1992 (many people say you always come back). I do remember the whaling station though - the cyclone fence, the large bit-marks on the carcasses and the acrid smell of boiling whale flesh. It was one of our Sunday 'outings' (we were pretty poor) Fascinated I was.

    1. It was one of our outings too, MF. Or a nice place to take visiting family and tourists. It's a bizarre thought now, hey? Go to The Gap, head down to the whaling station to see the whales hauled up and dismembered, an icecream if we were lucky and home.

  2. I went to the visitor centre there in April and thought it was pretty good. There's been a lot of activity on an Albany History page on Facebook recently, a large collection of old photographs and naturally quite a few about the whaling station have been posted. It's evident there's a really strong association/affection for the place in the memories of those who lived in the town during the time it was operational and even more so for the friends and families of those who worked there. Some of the photo's on the Facebook page (you have to go looking because there's tons of photos there now)and very graphic and you get a real sense of the primitive nature of butchering a whale carcass.

    Inevitably the conversation did turn to the closing and interestingly there is a feeling that GreenPeace hijacked the closing and that it was effectively put out of business by the death or retirement of its chief directors, by Govt policy, by high fuel prices and the ageing unseaworthy fleet. I read Chris' book and it's a job well done, quite rounded really, factual and empathetic with (even proud of) the workers of the station and the history of whaling at and around Albany, but it is very much a pro GreenPeace publication and political as a result.

    1. Thanks for that link Ciaran.
      Chris said to me recently that one of the whalers he worked with in The Last Whale said the book was 'a bit fucking green'!
      From reading over the old newspapers, it seems the company was a trouble for a while. A perfect storm of economics, emotion and politics, I guess.

  3. Thanks Ciaran.
    Glad you liked the book. I tried to be pro-people, faithfully render the experiences of those who were there at the time. I felt a big responsibility to the people on both sides. I'm not political and don't take sides. No-one had until The Last Whale written about that time from both sides. The Save the Whale campaign of the '70s had more influence than we thought at the time. The Greenpeace bit was the sharp end, the direct action. Project Jonah and Friends of the Earth were the ones who changed public opinion. Although these are just names of groups. at that time, it didn't matter to the activists; they would work under any banner to stop whaling.
    PS - I do like the historical albany facebook page.

  4. It is funny how attitudes change as one gets older. I remember doing riot training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a cadet and laughing out loud at one of the placards being held up by a member of the 'civpop', the civilian population, the polite way to refer to rioters. It said, 'Land Rights for Gay Whales'. Effectively that was the Establishment taking the piss out of pressure groups. I recall the shock I felt when I discovered a fellow office of mine, a real thug, was a signed up member of Greenpeace. 'But you're not a yoghurt knitting tree hugger!' I exclaimed.

    I have lived in Africa for twenty years. I have two sons, one 14 and the other 4. They have never seen an elephant in the wild in Africa. They haven't seen a lion. Or a leopard or a rhino. But if we go to the local artisan market, they can buy ivory sculptures or leopard skins. Even the areas designated as protected are being decimated by poachers. Ironically, the only areas where you are guaranteed to see the 'Big Five' are on private hunting reserves where the animals are bred to be shot.

    But then I am opening a whole new can of worms.

    1. That is quite a good can of worms though, Hippo.
      We see whales all the time because their population is recovering now. It is quite a lovely thing to see what happens to folk, even old whalers, when they see the whales return. I have seen them go completely mushy.

  5. Hi Chris, I'd be proud of the book myself. I hadn't thought of it being all that 'Green' and all that 'political' because it does take a kind of (ha ha :-)) fish-eye view. It's written from the standpoint of the activists and carries their human story in that sense, and I went along happily with the read in that vein, but it also looks at the lives/lifestyles of all involved in the practise without taking a dim view of anyone on a personal level. In fact you mention the rescue at The Gap, Ches Stubbs' rescue in heavy seas and the day everyone took off campaigning to go looking for the lost boy at Middleton Beach (which I remember and remember being emotionally struck by because I was of an age with him). The book was also quite factual, giving a lot of useful background information on the arrival and evolution of whaling along the south coast. So, it is way more than being a mere slice of GreenPeace propaganda, I'm happy to say that.

    I don't think anyone wants to see a return to whaling, that much is pretty clear. The memory is still very powerful though, those chasers were iconic, such a compelling feature of daily life in Albany for a couple of generations, particularly ours I guess, the one's who grew up with them steaming in and tying off at the Town Jetty on winter afternoons.

    I've been looking into the life of Campbell Taylor over the last while and just this morning came across an entry in Mary Taylor's 1873 Candyup Diary where she mentions two bay whaling parties, one under Nehemiah Fisher and another under a man by the name of Harris. She says that she hopes the reports of multiple kills by both parties is true, possibly (but not evident) because the Taylors have some financial interest in them. The point being, in the context of her diary and the difficulties of the day, it brings home the extent to which whaling is embedded in the local psyche. I think the transition from whaling to post whaling is probably still taking place; probably even is in a sort of dangerous lie where nostalgia has edged ahead of the protective ideal. Not that anything will come of it, but you sense almost a kind of religious attachment, an ongoing eulogy less to do with the act of killing whales than having to let go of such an intrinsic past..

    1. I agree Ciaran that it is still embedded here.
      Lovely, nuanced comment. Thank you.

  6. "The truth is whille Richard Jones; Joy Thomson and all the others who worked in schools across the country; the kids who wanted whaling to stop; Jody, the woman activist who stood on the stage in Sydney;the God's Garbage guy from Albany; the Mornington Island Dancers and other Australian Aboriginal players; and, especially!!! the residents of Albany who are the real heroes, are ignored.

    My Australian whaling heroes are all the people listed above, plus, Kaase in Albany and all the folks who sail with the Sea Sheppard."

    Emailed to me from Californian Rose (aka) Pat Farrington, who was there that day.

  7. And again from Rose:
    "After we old activists were introduced at the Sydney 30th Anniversary event [of the cessation of whaling in Australia], young Green Peace activists jumped up on the stage to be introduced.

    it was an exciting moment. As we were leaving the stage, a gaggle of those young women were very eager to talk with me so we sat down together at a near by table.

    The important question they were eager to ask of me?

    "Why are you wearing those kind of shoes with that more formal dress?"