History of Whales in Dunsborough, Western Australia

Dunsborough, WA has its place in Australia’s whaling history as one of the more remarkable whaling stations in Australia. The Castle Bay whaling station was setup just a few kilometres from where the Dunsborough township now exists and was established way back in 1845 when it was first known just as “the fishery”. There is little evidence of the early whaling station in this area and a rock cairn that was built near the beach and a wooden bench up on the hill known as whale lookout are the only signs of a gruesome whaling past.

The American whalers were the first to catch whales off our shores and use Castle bay. They had sailing ships with strongly railed decks and painted figureheads and mainly came from New Bedford, Massachusetts. The voyage lasted about five months and by the time they reached our shores they would be seeking a safe anchorage, fresh water and time to get their craft ship-shape. The bay was ideal for the whalers, there was plenty of firewood and the several wells dug close to the beach provided water. At that time 7 fathoms (42 feet) of water close inshore beside Castle Rock which offered a refuge for ships in bad weather. When the early settlers arrived the whalers would bring with them goods the locals needed and barter them for fresh produce. They also brought news of the outside world. During the summer the whalers followed the whales to their seasonal feeding grounds towards the Antarctic, the winters they sheltered in our bays and watched for whales returning from their calving and mating grounds up north.

The Castle Bay Whaling Company was established in 1845. They had two small boats, each of which needed six oarsmen, a helmsman and a harpooner. They rowed after their prey, threw harpoons when close enough, and then were towed until the whale died, broke free or they cut the rope. The whales were brought ashore and cut up on the beach. They had their camp near the stream and boiled the blubber in huge cauldrons, stirring with long handled spoons. The oil was then poured into heavy casks ready for shipping and selling. Perhaps you can imagine the large trypots on the beach, the boats on anchor and a whale or two lying in the shallows, but don’t imagine the smell. The local whaling season began soon after June and continued until late November. The best years for the whalers were 1846, when 35 tons of first quality oil were taken and 1848 when 33 tons were collected. Each year the Castle Bay Whaling Company cleaned about one and a half tons of whale bone. Then it was common to see schools of 6 to 12 whales but on October 31, 1853 there was great excitement when 50 Humpback and one Sperm were seen. In 1849 the whaling establishment was totally destroyed by fire.

George Chapman was superintendent for two years, then Robert Heppingstone returned to continue control until 1858, when he was drowned at Castle Rock, his boat smashed to pieces. William Seymour then became superintendent until he retired due to ill health. William Seymour kept a diary of his whaling days which his family preserved, and which is now one of the few real records we have of this time. Here are some of the extracts. The original spelling is used as it adds authenticity. Most of our early settlers had little education and some never had the opportunity to learn to write. We should be very grateful to those who could and did keep journals so that this part of our history was not lost.

1846.

1st August; Men growling says the headsman eat all the fat meat and left them all the lean. Corby spokesman. Strong easterly winds, cloudy, nothing in site. A prize tobacco to the man who rise first whale that is taken. Nothing in site for a few days.

14th August; Cloudy, fine, Palmer cruising. Palmer rose a school of Sperm whales. 3 boats out, each boat fastened. Palmer kild2, Pettit 2 and Clements 3 stood in five and anchored 2.

15th August; Commenced to try out

16th August; Picked up more dead sperm whales and imployed on cutting in trying out, Grog 3 times during the day. Corby growling because he could not have as much grog as he wanted.

17th August; Calm cloudy foggy. No look out but still cutting in and trying out, no grog.

23rd August; Strong S.E. wind with rain. Finished trying out. Ed Albertrose a rite whale. 3 Boats out. Clement’s boat – Steiner darted and we lost the wail.

25th August; Nothing in site. Coopering the oil about 12 tun.

28th August; Squally and rain. Clement returned from the Vasse drunk and his boats crew and soon put everything in an uproar and commenced fighting. Nothing in site. Killed a bullock.

1849.

  • 1 bottle brandy 5/-
  • 1 bar or soap 2/6
  • 1 lb of Tobacco 3/-

In 1872 the Castle Bay Whaling Company because of falling prices in whale oil due to the discovery of petroleum, closed. A cairn of stones has been erected near the beach as a memorial to this group of hardy men. Another small whaling company was started near Dunsborough during the 1840s by Hurford and Penny, but failed tragically. On their first venture a whale stove in their boat and the three on board were drowned. Locals recovered their bodies and buried them under peppermint trees near where Seymour’s old cottage used to be in Dunn Bay Road. There are some who say their ghosts still row their boat on windy nights.

One of the many stories of whales and whaling days tells of how a whale was harpooned off our coast but escaped with the harpoon still in him. Six months later the harpoon was returned to it’s Fremantle makers – J. & D. Bateman, from Greenland where the whale was finally taken.

In 1949 there were thoughts about reopening the whaling industry in our area. The Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse keepers were asked to keep watch and count the numbers of whales sighted, but as there were only 400 seen in the period from July to November, the idea was dropped. There are several types of whales which visit our shores. The Humpback whales are the most common but we also regularly see Southern Right whales as well as the Blue whales. From shore they are more often seen from spring until summer. Sometimes they come in close to the beaches of Geographe Bay and also often hug the coast around Cape Naturaliste, sometimes further out they leap right out of the water but more often they are seen mooching along blowing and waving a tail. You can see one in a museum in Perth which came ashore at Quindalup.