Among the paper files, photographic and film records in the Archives’ Perth office, there are some more unusual items – whale’s teeth. They are part of the CSIRO’s whale research collection, which was created during the years of intensive whaling following World War II. To mark National Science Week (10–18 August), Kellie Abbott takes a look at Australia’s whaling history and the role of the CSIRO in ending the killing of humpback whales.
I stepped on to the flensing deck for [the] first time, a fresh-faced 24-year-old – newly kitted out in a spotless boiler suit; leather belt holding a handsome sheathknife; shiny wellingtons; a neat black beret jauntily covering my golden locks; a clean clip-board of forms in one hand and the other hand holding a gleaming galvanised bucket containing new 66ft. tape, calipers etc. A derisive cry went up from the bloodied flensers, clad only in ragged, blood stained shorts and torn rubber boots.
In 1951, young CSIRO scientist Graham Chittleborough began work as a research officer at the Australian Whaling Commission station and processing factory at Babbage Island, near Carnarvon in Western Australia. He had ‘cut his teeth’ on Heard Island in the sub-Antarctic researching seals, but was perhaps unprepared for the sights and smells of a whaling station. In his 2003 account of the experience, he described the flensing deck ‘awash with watery blood’, with ‘long slabs of meat’, ‘exposed backbones’, ‘enormous skulls’ and ‘great sheets of thick blubber strewn about’.
Chittleborough’s job was to examine and record the whale catches of the three whaling stations in operation in Western Australia in the early 1950s, with the aim of learning more about whale biology, reproduction, migration and habits, as well as to assess the industry’s sustainability. From a ‘fresh-faced 24-year-old’ inappropriately dressed for the flensing deck, he became one of Australia’s most eminent whale researchers, representing Australia on the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
The raw data Chittleborough and other government scientists and fisheries officials gathered is now held by the Archives in Perth. These records chart the re-emergence of the whaling industry in Australia after World War II and its decline in the early 1960s, when humpback stocks had been decimated by overfishing.
The whaling industry’s new beginning
Whaling was one of the first industries in Western Australia – a whalers tunnel was built below the Round House in Fremantle in 1837. After a period dominated by Norwegian whalers from the late 19th century, with improved technology such as explosive harpoons, the industry declined in the late 1920s as prices for whale oil dropped and stocks diminished.
Renewed interest in whaling came with World War II. Shortages of whale products, particularly whale oil, during the war prompted private companies and the Australian Government to investigate re-establishing whaling in Australia. In Western Australia, where large numbers of humpbacks migrated from the Antarctic along the southern and west coasts, private companies established land-based whaling stations in Albany and Point Cloates, near Exmouth. The Australian Government set up its own whaling enterprise, the Australian Whaling Commission at Babbage Island, which began operations in 1950. On the east coast, whaling stations were established at Tangalooma, Byron Bay and Norfolk Island.
In 1951, the government set quotas for the number of whales each station could catch. Australia was also a member of the IWC, which played a role in setting limits on catches, although the financial interests of the member nations were often at the forefront of IWC negotiations. Between 1949 and 1959, almost 17,000 humpback whales were killed as part of Australian whaling operations.
From the outset, the CSIRO was involved in the re-established whaling industry. Its role was to conduct biological research on whales and to advise on the sustainability of the industry in light of this research on biology, reproduction, populations and migrations of humpback whales.
In 1951, Graham Chittleborough was appointed the first scientific officer for CSIRO’s whale research program. He commenced at Babbage Island in June that year for the whaling season. In a recommendation for salary advancement, Chittleborough’s supervisor described the work on stations as ‘arduous’ and entailing ‘very long hours’ – something of an understatement when the job involved hands-on research on the flensing deck of a whaling station.
Whales were measured and closely examined; samples and organs were removed – quickly, so as not to interfere with the work of the flensers. Despite his rough start, Chittleborough developed a camaraderie with the whaling workers, even being bestowed a nickname – ‘Balls’, as he was always carrying off testes and ovaries in his bucket for analysis.
Chittleborough and his CSIRO colleagues analysed the data gathered on whales and the season’s catches and reported to the government and to the IWC. As early as 1953, they were warning that the quotas were unsustainable and that humpback whale stocks were showing worrying signs of depletion.
Tensions, however, were evident between their recommendations and the policies of the Department of Primary Industry and, of course, the interests of the whaling companies. The head of the Fisheries Division of the CSIRO wrote optimistically in 1952 that the CSIRO’s work could not be done ‘unless we can approach the whole problem scientifically and not from the business point of view which sees profits as more important than the protection of the whale stocks’. Plans for Chittleborough to be based at Tangalooma in 1953 had to be abandoned when the company that owned the station refused permission.
Chittleborough’s reports each year warned of decreasing numbers of humpback whales, with the average length and age of caught whales declining, and boats travelling further and taking longer to find large whales. In 1959, his report to the IWC argued that the ‘Group IV population’ (which travelled from the Antarctic up the west coast) had ‘declined very seriously in recent years’. In 1960, he reported that the humpback whale population ‘has declined to a point where immediate action is necessary if its complete destruction is to be avoided’.
The final season for Australia’s humpback whaling stations, in 1962, was a disaster. In early 1963, the IWC decided to end whaling of humpbacks from Antarctic stocks – the research presented by Chittleborough and the CSIRO was one of the driving forces behind the decision.
The only station that continued operations was the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Albany, which began hunting the sperm whales found in southern waters. The last whale legally caught in Australia was in 1978, when the Albany station closed down.
View the catch information for the final humpback whaling season at Babbage Island, 1962
Read Graham Chittleborough’s research notes from 1951
Read more about the CSIRO whale research collection in the series K912 description on RecordSearch
‘Whales swim into Australian hearts’, an Out of the Cabinet article by Ian Warden