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History of shore-based whaling


Locations of Tasmanian Whaling Stations

Shore-based whaling stations
throughout Tasmania

The first British settlement in Van Diemen's Land was established on the Derwent River at Risdon Cove in 1803. The whaling ship Albion, took three whales at Great Oyster Bay during its return voyage which is the first recorded catch in Tasmanian waters. The settlement's commander, Lieutenant David Collins noted the large number of whales and in 1804 the English whaling ship Alexander took the first whales in the Derwent. The first colonial initiative to exploit the resource came when Harbour Master William Collins erected a try works at the northern side of the entrance to Ralph's Bay. By September 1805 it was reported to be trying out oil obtained from a British whaling vessel working in the Derwent River.

Direct trade between the colony and Britain was prevented at the beginning of the 19th century by the British East India Company monopoly on trade throughout the eastern seas. In 1813 these restrictions were lifted, however, British navigation laws prevented the direct transhipment of cargoes from the colonies in vessels smaller than 350 tons until 1819. In addition, direct shipment of oil to Britain was made less profitable by high tariffs imposed by the British Government. The colonial government also introduced duties and port charges in 1813 as a means of bolstering revenues and it was not until 1824, following the recommendations of the Bigge Commission, that local tariffs were abolished and port fees were drastically reduced. Between 1823 and 1825 British tariffs on colonial oil were also reduced until they were equal with those paid by the British whaling interests.

Visit of the Duke of Edinburgh, 1868

Whaling display for the visit of the
Duke of Edinburgh, 1868. Note the
arch built of whale oil barrels
(Archives Office of Tasmania)

The waters of the approaches to Hobart such as the Derwent estuary, Storm Bay and Frederick Henry Bay were the first targeted by the colonial whalers. In 1824 the first whaling stations were established at Slopen Island and later Maria Island, followed in 1826 by a station at Adventure Bay on Bruny Island. By the early 1830s two new whaling grounds were being exploited at Recherche Bay / Southport Lagoon near the entrance to the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, and at Spring Bay on the east coast. Spring Bay had six active stations and there is documentary evidence for a further four unfulfilled proposals.

The colonial Government introduced a leasing system in 1835 for all stations on Crown land. Allotments were usually of three acres with a water frontage of 3 chains and were leased for 3 years at a nominal rent of 5 shillings per year. The problem of wage agreements and conditions for workers in the industry as well as disputes over the ownership of whales led to the introduction in 1838 of an Act for the regulation and protection of the Whale Fisheries. Government policies also effected the establishment of whaling stations at areas reserved for penal settlements such as Maria Island and the Tasman Peninsula.

In 1833 the Van Diemen's Land Company ill-advisedly set up a whaling station operating out of its main base at Circular Head on the north western coast. The station was singularly unsuccessful and closed after two seasons with a catch of only a single whale. As early as 1828 the first venture to the coast of Victoria had been made by Launceston based whalers and during the 1830s stations were established at Portland and Port Fairy, as well as a number of less well documented locations in South Australia.

Captain James Kelly

Captain James Kelly
(Archives Office of Tasmania)

During the latter half of the 1830s the shore based whaling industry reached its peak with up to 32 stations in operation and revenues from whale products exceeding that of any other Tasmanian industry. New stations were opened on the east coast as far north as Bicheno. In 1837 the value of whale oil and bone from the stations and the offshore fleet was worth over £135,000 and remained close to £100,000 per annum over the next three years.

The boom period was over by the mid 1840's and the shore based industry entered a period of decline. The scarcity of whales caused by over exploitation forced long established stations to close and the continuing search by whalers for new locations was restricted by the geographical limits of the coastline. During this period a consistent pattern emerges of leases for whaling stations being taken out on a speculative basis but remaining unused and eventually forfeited to the Crown. The depression of the 1840s and an overall fall in right whale oil prices also caused the closure of a number of stations whose owners were left exposed to financial ruin by their over speculation. Even a long established participant in the industry such as Captain James Kelly was forced to close or sell his stations before being declared bankrupt and withdrawing from whaling completely in 1842.

Offshore whaling with the 'Aladin' and 'Jane'

Offshore whaling with the Aladin and Jane,
by William Duke (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

By 1845 the number of shore stations had dropped dramatically and in the late 1850s only three or four stations remained in operation at remote locations such as Port Davey, where the catches obtained from sea going vessels could be processed. The steadier income generated by rural products such as sheep and wheat also provided investors with better investment opportunities than whaling and for those entrepreneurs still willing to participate in the industry there was the offshore industry to consider. Consumer demand, and the higher prices paid for sperm oil over black oil, had led to an expansion of the ship based industry with the number of voyages by Hobart whaling vessels rising from 11 in 1840 to 38 in 1850.