Marking 41 years since the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company closure announcement
On 31st July 1978 the dramatic announcement was made by the executive director of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company to close the whaling station and end the era of whaling in Australia. Forty years on, Albany’s Historic Whaling Station looks back on the events which shaped the last season.
The 1978 whaling season began like any other season for the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company (CBWC) and their 102 employees, with the first day of whaling taking place on 1st March.
However, only a few weeks later, on 20th March 1978 the Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced Sir Sydney Frost would head a Federal Inquiry into Whales and Whaling, stating "I abhor any activity [that might threaten the extinction of any animal species] particularly when it is directed against a species as special and intelligent as the whale".
In May, the Albany Chamber of Commerce commissioned a survey into the economic effects of whaling on Albany, surveying the approximately 50 businesses which did business with the CBWC. The ACC also made a request to the Federal Government to make funds available to help pro-whaling groups prepare a submission to the inquiry. This was in light of the $25,000 made available to Project Jonah, an anti-whaling group, to cover the cost of their submission.
The future looked good by all accounts from CBWC annual report (May 1978) which mentioned a continuing long term world market for the industry’s main product, sperm whale oil, seemed assured. CBWC chairman Rodney Hunt shared "We are assured that for the multitudes of purposes for which crude sperm oil is being used there are not satisfactory commercial substitutes currently available." The CBWC were confident the inquiry’s findings would support the continuation of the company's operations.
Chairman of the Federal Inquiry, Sir Sydney Frost visited Albany late May 1978 to get a firsthand experience of a sperm whale being caught and tour of the town to see what types of industries were operating apart from whaling. During this time a local poll of Albany residents was conducted and results showed 68% of those polled were in favour of whaling continuing.
By June however, the submissions to the Inquiry into Whales and Whaling were made public and more were against the local industry than those wanting to see it continue, with many of those against from prominent organisations or individuals. Only around seven of the over 90 submissions firmly supported the continuation of the industry.
At the same time possible whale oil substitutes available in Australia started to emerge, including the claimed miracle plant Jojoba bean which produces oil that was considered identical in every way to sperm whale oil. The ban on sperm whale oil was anticipated by the Australian lubrication industry, so phasing out had already started within some of the major Australian oil companies who had seen the use of sperm oil replacements in USA.
A major blow to the industry came from the International Whaling Commission decision in late June 1978 to reduce Australia’s annual whale quota from 713 to 561 for the upcoming 1979 season.
CBWC did not know at that stage what changes they would need to make as a result of the reduced quota. Chairman Rodney Hunt suggested a couple of options including shortening the season or only using two of the three whale chasers over the normal season length. The International Whaling Commission decision came as a complete surprise for the CBWC, after the 1978 season's quota was an increase on 1977.
The effect of the whale oil substitutes was also starting to take its toll on the CBWC with their normal buyers showing extreme reluctance to commit themselves forward. However, it wasn't until mid-July following a visit to Europe and the UK by two CBWC directors that it was realised how serious the move was from sperm oil to alternatives due to the doubt of continuity of supply from Australia.
During the shock announcement on the first morning of the Inquiry hearings on 31st July 1978, CBWC executive director John Saleeba outlined "…In our opinion this was an unforeseen effect of the Public Inquiry…Oil revenue comprises nearly 80 per cent of our total whale product sales and it therefore does not seem feasible to forecast any likelihood of profitable whaling operations in 1979."
"After over a quarter of a century of whaling with good returns to shareholders the directors' decision has been made with deep regret and reluctance."
With no firm decision made on when the closure would occur, the 102 employees and their families were left wondering what the future would hold. Mr Saleeba explained to the Inquiry "...The whaling station could close as early as one week or it might continue until the end of this season." It all depended on if the Company could find buyers for their current 1,500 tonnes stock of sperm oil.
However, the CBWC was able to continue operating for a further four months, with a reduced workforce and shifts to help lower the running costs.
On the evening 21st November 1978, the Cheynes II, Cheynes III and Cheynes IV whale chasing ships berthed at the old Albany Town Jetty after their final whale hunt. The last shore based whaling station in Australia was now closed and over 150 years of whaling in Albany waters came to an end.
Discover what the final year was like from the perspective of three past whalers and a 1978 protester in our newly released documentary film exhibit End of an Era.
Hear their stories and experience Albany's whaling history in an exhibit unlike any of the other exhibits currently on the Historic Whaling Station site. End of An Era runs daily and is part of your Historic Whaling Station experience.
For further information on this and any other Historic Whaling Station exhibits, please ask our team when onsite or call us on 9844 4021.