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The annual migration of the whales through Halifax Bay has started. They have been seen with the naked eye from the beach at Saunders Beach, swimming northward past Herald and Rattlesnake Island or just taking a break in the warm waters near Magnetic Island.

This pic from the Townsville Bulletin captures the wonder of the whale.

This pic from the Townsville Bulletin of the 2015 migration season captures the wonder of the whale.

Humpbacks live in the cold waters of Antarctica where there are rich feeding grounds and migrate to warmer tropical water from about May to September to give birth. Remarkably it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when sightings of whales as far north as Halifax Bay was a rarity. What happened to the annual migration in times gone by and why are they back now?

Australia’s contact with whalers dates back to the first Europeans in Port Jackson when British and American whaling ships called into Sydney. In time New South Wales’ entrepreneurs outfitted whaling ships and employed captains and crews for these risky deep sea ventures.

With the high risk came huge rewards and the trade in sperm whale oil and other whale products flourished with ready markets domestically and in Britain. Whale oil is obtained by boiling down whale blubber. Households used it as fuel for lamps before the invention of the incandescent light bulb and the factories of Britain’s Industrial Revolution made use of it to lubricate machines.

Another product from whales is ‘whalebone’ or baleen. A whale’s baleen plates hang from the upper jaw. They are made of keratin, the same as human fingernails and hair. The baleen plates are stiff and filter krill. Humans used baleen to manufacture corsets, umbrellas, whips and hoops for skirts.

As well as deep sea whaling expeditions New South Wales had the advantage of migrating whales coming close to the coast and Sydney Heads became a whaling station in 1838. About five years earlier Archibald Mosman lent his name to the nowadays upmarket suburb of Sydney where he catered for whalers between voyages with a refitting establishment.

Robert Towns (1794 – 1873) after whom Townsville is named made significant profits during this time as an owner of whaling ships. By 1856 he owned ten whalers. He began his seaman’s life as apprentice to the master of a collier out of North Shields, north east England and at nineteen he commanded a ship engaged in trade in the Mediterranean. He lived permanently in Sydney from 1843 and as an owner of whaling ships he exported oil, drawing on years of mercantile experience that began in the Mediterranean and developed further in various Pacific islands. His business arrangement with John Melton Black to found Townsville in the early 1860s was just one of many enterprises he had going at that time.

The glory days of Sydney’s whale trade were over by early 1850s. The whale stocks had been overfished; since 1851 experienced crew had rushed to the gold fields.

Queensland, unlike other colonies in the nineteenth century did not build land-based whaling stations. Other nations had certainly sent whaling vessels to the Great Barrier Reef as evidenced by the wrecks on the coral.

Magnetic Island as viewed from Saunders Beach.

Magnetic Island as viewed from Saunders Beach.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin (now the Townsville Bulletin) Wednesday 20 August 1913 page 4 has the report of a whale sighting near Magnetic Island:

On Friday last a large whale was seen from Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, about midway between the Island and the breakwater. The whale was lying motionless for a long time and gave the impression of a large boat floating bottom upwards, but it was apparently only basking, as it suddenly sprang into motion and made in the direction of the Quarantine Station, but turning shortly went out to sea again. It was estimated that the whale was 40ft or 50ft long.

The account of this sighting expresses curiosity and wonder while the headline below in The Townsville Daily Bulletin Saturday 17 August 1912 page 2 emphasizes cold, hard commercial realities.


The article continues:

The revolution which has recently taken place in the equipment of the modern whaler, described a few days ago the “The Standard,’ has resulted also in a revolution in the commercial aspect of the great deep-sea industry.

This is largely due to the replacing of the old hand harpoon by the “gun harpoon” and bomb, which explodes in the quarry’s body, the whole operation being safely accomplished from the mother ship without the use of smaller boats. By this means the greatest number of whales are killed in the shortest possible time, and with a minimum of risk, the “catch” of the modern whaler therefore being very large compared with that of its predecessors.

Islands to the north of Saunders Beach: far left Havanah, front Rattlesnake and Herald. Behind them Acheron with Palm Island in the background.

Islands to the north of Saunders Beach: far left Havannah, front Rattlesnake and Herald. Behind and between them Acheron with Palm Island in the background.

In the mid to late 1930s when the NanKivell family lived at Saunders Beach George (one of the teenage boys in the NanKivell Park post) tells of seeing whales frequently in the migration season.

However that was before the Tangalooma Whaling Station on Moreton Island near Brisbane came into operation.

Whaling at Tangalooma

Tangalooma Whaling Station flensing deck about 1955. Photo property of author. (All rights reserved.)

The first two humpbacks were harpooned in June 1952 and from May and October the station worked 24 hours per day. Modern production methods allowed different uses for the whale: purified oil for margarine, soaps, cosmetics and other food products; ground meal for livestock from remainder of the carcass; and baleen for the fashion industry.

Over the ten years of its operation the Tangalooma station (together with the station at Byron Bay and the Russian Whaling Fleet) almost fished out the humpback whale population. However an international agreement in 1963 protected the humpback and in 1979 Australia adopted an anti-whaling policy.

In 1986 the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect and this should protect all whales. The population of humpbacks that migrate through Halifax Bay has seen an improvement since the mid-60s and Saunders Beach beach-goers will have increasing opportunities to see them, hopefully for a long time to come.


Australian Government, last updated 20 November 2013.  Australia’s Whaling Industry and Whales. Viewed 20 July 2015. http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/australias-whaling-industry-and-whales

Australian Government Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2015, Whales and Dolphins . Viewed 20 July 2015. http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/animals/whales-and-dolphins

Australian Government Department of the Environment Whaling. Viewed 20 July 2015. http://www.environment.gov.au/marine/marine-species/cetaceans/whaling

Gibbs, Martin 2010.From Whaling to Whale Watching. Queensland Historical Atlas 2015. Viewed 21 July 2015. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/content/whaling-whale-watching

Howard, Mark, Sydney’s whaling fleet, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011. Viewed 21 July 2015. http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/sydneys_whaling_fleet

National Library of Australia, Townsville Daily Bulletin: Wednesday 20 August 1913 page 4. Viewed 18 July 2015. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article60110842. Saturday 17 August 1912 page 2.  Viewed 18 July 2015. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58475309

NanKivell Park https://wordpress.com/post/66220522/261/

Shineberg, D. Towns, Robert (1794–1873), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/towns-robert-4741/text7873, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 29 July 2015.

Townsville Bulletin Whale Antics Awe Boaties. 20 July 2015 page 6.

Personal communication between Mr George NanKivell and author 13 July 2006.

Pixley, A. J. (1970) Shipwrecks in Queensland and adjacent waters. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 9 1: 151-161. UQ espace http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:207979. http://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/article/f560e94a502d889ba01c7bb5e1e3dea5