A Whale Hunt Off Moreton Island


In 1954 two Humpback Whales - a male and female - paired up as they headed along the eastern coast of Australia to the warm breeding grounds of the South Pacific. They, along with thousands of other whales of their kind, had just left the frigid waters of the Antarctic after spending months there feeding up on krill. They meandered up the coast, zig-zagging and frolicking on a journey made by countless generations before them.

Male and female Humpbacks (whaletrust.org)

Unfortunately, there was a new danger in their way that year. The Australian whaling industry had recently began operations off this coastline and were targeting the migrating herds of Humpbacks. This couple had been heading north to procreate and create new life, but they were about to face a very different destiny.

A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was on board to witness the slaughter:
"One beautiful morning last week two humpbacks, a male of 39 feet and a female of 38 feet, were swimming north about a mile off-shore from the green hills and yellow beaches of Moreton Island, Queensland.

At 8.50 a.m., while they were breaking water to breathe, their spouts were seen by a Norwegian seaman in the lookout barrel of a whale-chaser, Kos II. "Two blows!" shouted the seaman, pointing to starboard. The gunner-captain of the chaser, Captain Bredo Rimstad, changed course immediately and ordered full speed.

Kos II, one of the two chasers supplying whales to the Whale Industries Ltd. station at Tangalooma, on the west side of Moreton Island about 25 miles from Brisbane, is a small, very powerful vessel of 243 tons. Her engine, which is capable of driving a 4,000-ton vessel, develops 12 knots when necessary.

The chaser is a little larger than an ocean-going tug, very low amidships (so low, in fact, that her decks are awash in moderate seas) and very high at the bow. The high bow, with its harpoon gun always aimed downwards, gives the chaser an eager, straining appearance.
The whaler Kos II, which was eventually scuttled off Tangalooma in 1974. 
Captain Rimstad, because he is also a gunner, is even more important than the usual ship's master. The whaling company values his services so highly that it pays his passage to and from Norway each year and pays him about £3,500 for his work during the three month whaling season. About £3,260 of this is paid in the form of whale bonuses.

Bonuses paid to the officers of Kos II are calculated partly on production at Tangalooma and partly on the number of whales harpooned by their gunner. Consequently, at the climax of the chase every member of the crew, even the cook, does his utmost to help Captain Rimstad shoot the whale.

Captain Rimstad, a very short and slightly built man of about 45 years, has had 21 seasons of whaling in the Antarctic, one season off Carnarvon in West Australia, and two seasons off Tangalooma. He stands on the bridge during the search for the whale, wearing strangely genteel chocolate corduroy trousers, a brown and white fairisle jumper and a tan corduroy golf cap. When the chaser comes within harpoon range; usually less than 60 feet, he has run down a catwalk from the bridge and is standing alert on the gun platform.

Kos II, together with Kos VII, had rounded Cape Moreton at 7 a.m. and by 8.30 a.m. Captain Rimstad had killed his first whale of the day - a 41ft 8in male. This whale, inflated with compressed air, was floating alongside Kos II when Captain Rimstad began to chase the two humpbacks.

By the time Kos II, travelling at full speed, had reached the spot where the humpbacks had last appeared, Captain Rimstad was on the gun platform, swivelling the harpoon-gun and scanning the ocean ahead.

"Half speed!" he shouted in Norwegian. "Half speed!" the Norwegian helmsman called to the Australians in the engine room. Kos II slowed down and the search continued.

"Dead slow!" "Slow as possible!" Captain Rimstad looked back at the bridge inquiringly, the helmsman glanced up at the lookout barrel. But the only sign of the whales was a large smooth area, like an oil slick, on the surface of the sea.

"That's from their tails moving below water," explained the helmsman. "Sometimes we can follow them a long way like that, but this time they have gone deep."

A moment later, about 10 minutes after the whales had sounded, the lookout shouted and pointed to port. About a quarter of a mile away the humpbacks were breaking surface and blowing. Captain Rimstad ran back up the catwalk, the engine-room made full speed and the chase began again.

While Kos II bore down on the two whales, Captain Rimstad looked at Kos VII through field glasses. "Kos VII has a fish on the line," he said. "One on the line and one following," he added. "If you get a female first, the male will follow her right alongside. The female rarely follows the male, though."

Once again the humpbacks sounded before Kos II came within harpoon range. They surfaced 10 minutes later, this time about 300 yards to starboard.

"If they keep doing that, they'll run themselves into shallow water where we can see them," remarked the helmsman. For a quarter of a mile out from the pale sandhills of Moreton Island, the sea was a light, almost transparent blue. The whales, although they had sounded, were probably still in the deeper and darker blue water, although, if the helmsman's guess" were right, they might soon appear in the band of light blue.

Kos II chased them for an hour and a half, during which time they surfaced six times, breaking water about three times on each occasion. At one time, the chaser reached the whales as they were breaking water for the second time.

Captain Rimstad was close enough to see the morning sun making small rainbows in their spouts; but by the time he had aimed his harpoon-gun the whales were half-submerged. The white undersides of their tails rose up in the air and then cut down through the water as they sounded.

If the whales had broken water again, Captain Rimstad would have been in position to fire a 160-pound steel harpoon at one of them. The harpoon, five and a half feet long, four inches in diameter, and carrying a two-inch rope, would have buried itself in the broad rubbery side beneath the dorsal fin of one whale. Three seconds later, a time-fuse grenade on the harpoon barbs would have exploded, killing or mortally wounding the whale. But the humpbacks remained submerged. By this time, however, they were near the shallow water.

"We'll try to get him now," said Captain Rimstad when he returned to the bridge. "Steady steaming!"

"Right ahead now!" called the lookout. Captain Rimstad ran down the catwalk, took hold of the gun handle, and called: "Dead slow!"

Kos II stood by. Everyone aboard was watching Captain Rimstad. He motioned to port with his left hand, and the helmsman responded. The harpoon-gun fired with a detonation out of all proportion to its size; the harpoon and its rope struck the whale's side, releasing a spurt of blood; a muffled explosion, forcing smoke from the wound, blowhole, and mouth, sounded inside the whale's body. The whale reared out of the water and began swimming in a circle, dragging the taut harpoon rope through the waves like a moving radius.

"Following fish!" shouted the helmsman. He left the wheel and ran down to the lower deck to help bring the whale alongside. The ship's cook took his place on the bridge. Two seamen were quickly loading another harpoon. The harpooned whale broke water again, roared as it sucked in its last gulps of air, and died.

He had survived the grenade explosion for less than a minute. "Fast fish!" called the lookout. At this signal that the whale was now secure, a winch began noisily hauling in the harpoon line.
A Tangalooma gunner hits the target. (sylviaadam.wordpress.com)
The second whale, obviously a male, broke surface besides its dead mate and followed the body in towards the bow of Kos II, where Captain Rimstad crouched beside his gun.

"He's coming on starboard!" shouted the Captain. "He's coming on starboard!" The gun barrel sloped lower as the live whale swam closer. Another harpoon: explosion, rope, blood, muffled noise, and smoke. This time the whale was killed instantly.

"Fast fish!" called the seamen who were leaning over the railing. Two seamen had already brought the female under the bow and had punctured her hide with a long spear to which was fixed a compressed air hose. After pumping in air for four minutes, they secured her on the starboard side. A winch chain dragged the whale's tail up to deck level and a seaman cut three or four feet off each fluke with a long flensing knife. Unless clipped in this way, the lower fluke may act as a rudder and steer the chaser off course.

The winch had brought the male alongside; two seamen were casting a weighted heaving rope around its tail. A chain soon replaced the rope, and the same procedure of pumping and clipping began. While the two whales were being brought alongside, sharks had been inspecting the whale caught earlier in the morning and chained to the port side. The whale was still bleeding and 12 sharks - bronze whalers and white pointers, each between 12 and 15 feet long-were circling cautiously. At last a bronze whaler made a quick pass at the white and black corrugated belly, and scooped out a piece of blubber. Others snapped at the belly, lips and flippers, leaving round, white wounds on the whale's black hide.

Captain Rimstad, to whom each bite meant a financial loss in oil bonus, ran to the bridge, fetched a .303 rifle and began firing from the deck. His first bullet struck the head of a bronze whaler which had leapt six feet from the water so that it was half in the water, and half on the whale's belly. Another bullet hit the back of a white pointer which had broken surface to snap at the whale's lower jaw. The white pointer threshed the water and began to bleed freely.

After a few more shots, the sharks were ignoring the whales and attacking their wounded fellows. As soon as the third whale had been chained alongside the first whale on the port side, Kos II began the slow journey back to Tangalooma at about six knots. Sharks never attack the whales when the chaser is moving.

Kos II could have taken five whales; but a radio-telephone message from the station had informed Captain Rimstad that the factory could handle only three whales from Kos ll. Half an hour later, Kos II drew level with and passed Kos VII. Two black and white humpbacks were chained, like huge rubber surf toys, to her starboard side. The two chasers raced one another back to the station but Kos II reached the whale slips first. Captain Rimstad's crew had dropped their whales by 3p.m. and were put in the channel again by 3.30 p.m. to fish for schnapper."
A follow-up article detailing the long process of butchering dead whales at Tangalooma ended with these words:
"The second whale quivered to a halt on the flensing deck. Two men unrolled a steel tape and began to measure it. Its mate, with whom it had been swimming towards the tropics eight hours before, was a dark hulk in the water at the foot of the slipway."

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