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Whaling in Durban

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By Allan Jackson - January 2005

Many of the younger people living in Durban won't know that it was once a busy centre of the whaling industry. Thousands of migrating whales were caught in the seas nearby and towed back here to be processed into a number of products which were highly prized by consumers, both local and overseas.

Whaling in Durban stopped in 1975 but older residents won't have any problem remembering those days and, in particular, the very bad smells which wafted from the whaling stations on the seaward side of the Bluff and made the lives of people living nearby a misery.

The industry in Durban started in 1907 when the Norwegian Consul in Durban, Jacob Egeland, went back to Norway and, with fellow Norwegian Johan Bryde, raised money to start a whaling operation in Durban. The two men formed the South African Whaling Company in 1907 and brought two ships for catching whales to Durban from Sandefjord in Norway. They started hunting whales in 1908 and managed to catch and kill 106 of the huge animals that year. [Bryde later had the Bryde whale named after him]

The whaling season in Durban lasted from March to September because whales would migrate northward past Durban at the start of the Antarctic winter and pass by on their way south again. During these months, the catchers could reap a rich harvest of whales without having to sail much more than 150 miles from Durban.

The catchers would kill whales by shooting them with 165-pound metal harpoons loaded with explosive. They would then pump the dead whales full of compressed air so that they would float and, once the vessel had finished hunting, it would tow the whales it had killed back to Durban. Whales would be brought right into the bay and pulled up out of the water on a slipway on the bay side of the Bluff.

They were then taken into the whaling station nearby where they went through a process called flensing, which is just another way of saying that they were cut up and their blubber, meat and bone separated. The blubber was rendered down into oil, which was the most important product made from whales during the early years of whaling in Durban, and was used to make soap, margarine and cooking fat.

Other products produced from sperm whales included sperm oil, which was used as a general purpose lubricant for delicate machinery, spermaceti wax, used for candles and in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, bone and protein meal, used for animal feed, and meat extract, used as a flavouring base for soups. In later years, frozen whale meat gained in popularity, especially in the Japanese market. One of the rarest and most pricey byproducts of whaling is Ambergris which is actually an intestinal blockage found in a small percentage of sperm whales. Ambergris does not loose its smell for decades and provides a compound used as a fixative in the most expensive perfumes.

The spot where the slipway and whaling station were built had been very popular with Durban residents who liked to go there to swim and have picnics, but the whale carcasses floating in the water attracted so many sharks that soon nobody dared swim there.

The smell from the first whaling station was very bad and there were so many complaints from residents that, after the first whaling season, it was decided to move the station to the seaward side of the Bluff where there were fewer people to complain. Whales were still brought into the harbour and pulled up the slipway, but now they were loaded onto a specially-built train, which was unique in the world, and taken to the whaling station.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

This picture of a humpback whale being unloaded from the train was taken at the Bluff Whaling Station in 1909.


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

In 1909, 155 whales were brought into Durban but after that, Jacob Egeland ended his partnership with Johan Bryde and started the Union Whaling and Fishing Company with his cousin Abraham Larsen. The whaling trade must have been very profitable because there were 13 whaling companies registered in Natal by 1912 but only six ever operated.

Most of the whaling companies failed as result of World War I but the Premier Whaling Company started again in 1919 and, in 1922, Egelund and Larsen started the Union Whaling Company. The two companies operated 9 catchers each, shared the slipway in the harbour, and had whaling stations near each other on the other side of the Bluff.

It was about one and a half miles by rail from the slipway to the Union whaling station and another mile to the one belonging to the Premier Whaling Company. The specially designed train had two flatbed carriages which could carry one large whale, or two smaller ones, and it would transport whales to each of the whaling stations in turn.

In 1931 Lever Brothers, owner of the Premier Whaling Company, sold out to the Union Whaling Company which operated both whaling stations until 1953, when the old Union station was closed. The company used the Premier station until whaling came to end in Durban 1975.

Whaling in Durban was mainly shore-based but the Union Whaling Company did undertake pelagic whaling operations, which involves catching whales and processing them aboard a factory ship at sea. The catchers would catch and kill whales and tow them back to the factory ship where they would be processed and the by-products stored until the fleet got back to dry land.

In 1937 the company acquired a factory ship , named the Uniwaleco, which would travel to the Antarctic with a number of catchers to hunt during the summer season. In the Antarctic off-season, she and the catchers would operate in the waters around Madagascar, hunting humpback whales.

The Uniwaleco was requisitioned by the navy at the outbreak of World War II and was later sunk by a torpedo. The war reduced the level of whaling in Durban with many of the newer catchers being used by the South African Navy as minesweepers while hostilities lasted.

The company bought an ex-factory ship called the Empire Victory in 1949. She was renamed the Abraham Larsen and she and her catchers sailed down to the Antarctic each year, taking a large number of Durbanites along as crew.
The Natal Mercury of 17 March, 1952, reported that the Abraham Larsen had docked quietly in Durban the day before, a Sunday, after a four-and-a-half month trip to the Antarctic. The paper noted that the company had deliberately paid the 250 crew members from Durban only a few pounds in cash each so that they couldn't go ashore to be fleeced of their money by 'good-time girls, confidence men and thieves'. Men could expect about £300 after their first trip to Antarctic and about £480 after they had had three year's experience.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

The Abraham Larsen manouevering on Durban Bay.


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

A newspaper clipping from 16 November 1955 reported that the Abraham Larsen and her fleet of catchers was about to sail on a trip 'down to the ice'. Mr Knutsen, the chief steward, had said that the provisions for her four-and-a-half month voyage included 1,9 million cigarettes, 2000 pounds of tobacco, 1015 bottles of spirits, 80 gallons of rum and 267000 pounds of butter.

The trips to the Antarctic were very successful, with the expedition which returned in 1954, having caught 2200 whales. Unrestricted whaling by many nations in the Antarctic did start to result in the depletion of the whale populations and the Union Whaling Company decided, after only seven seasons, that it would abandon Antarctic whaling and sell the Abraham Larsen to the Japanese.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

A Union Whaling Company catcher sails out of Durban harbour..


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

The catchers based in Durban continued to hunt and, although experience had made them very good at finding whales, the decision in 1954 to spot whales from the air and direct the catchers to them by radio, proved to be very successful. The Aircraft Operating Company provided the crews and aircraft and the first flights were made from Stamford Hill airport in Durban by pilot Ken Pinkerton and observer Abraham Larsen [not the Union Whaling Company founder] in a twin-engined de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide aircraft.

Picture courtesy John McDonald

This picture of a Dragon Rapide flying over a catcher is thought to have been taken on the first occasion that a whale was spotted by an aircraft from Durban and caught and killed. The whale emblem on the aircraft's tail and the tiny figure in the bottom right-hand corner, apparently observer Abraham Larsen, were stuck onto the original print.


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

A news report in 1963 said that the flights had started as a 10-day experiment but that they had proved so effective that aircraft had flown nearly a million miles on whale-spotting missions since then. It was recorded that the aircraft had spotted 11874 whales and that nearly half of these had been caught and killed by the catchers.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

Seen here in front of the Dragon Rapide, from left, are aircrew Len Oakenfull, pilot, Abraham Larsen, observer, and Ken Pinkerton, pilot.


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

The flights continued until the end of whaling in Durban and my informant John McDonald, who was the last chief chemist for Union Whaling, told me that he went along for the ride one day towards the end of whaling operations. The pilot was an ex-RAF fighter pilot out to impress, or should that be scare, the man from head office.

Clipping courtesy Margaret Surmon
==> Click the image, left, to view the clipping which was published in the Daily News on 14 Setember, 1955.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

August 2006 Update: I have managed to contact pilot Ken Pinkerton and he informed me of errors in the text in this section. The corrected version of the text is as follows:

The aircraft, left, was a 1957 Piper PA-23 Apache (ZS-CGZ).

The Aircraft Operating Company had orginally acquired a PA-23 (ZS-CCB) in 1956 to replace their Dragon Rapide for use in spotting whales. The Dragon apparently did not fly well on one engine and would have had great difficulty had there been an engine failure far out at sea.

The Piper was was joined by another PA-23 (ZS-CGZ) the following year but the two aircraft were used only until 1962. They did not have long-range fuel tanks built into the wings and the tanks had to be installed in the cabin, taking up a lot of space.

The Pipers were then replaced by Cessna 310hs. Piper ZS-CGZ ended up belonging to the Central Organisation for Trade Testing and was destroyed in a fire started by a disgruntled ex-employee on 9 Jannuary 1985.

Clipping courtesy Margaret Surmon

Seen here in front of Cessna 310hs are, from left, Sid Rowe (observer), Len Oakenfull (pilot), Abraham Larsen (observer), Ian Locke (observer), Bob Mathews (pilot), and Ken Pinkerton (pilot).


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

John said his enduring memory of the nine-and-a-half-hour flight was of the aeroplane flying straight at the crow's nest of a catcher and only banking away at the last second. He also noted that he had had to be very careful not to drink too much fluid before going on the flight because there were no toilets on the plane.

The smells caused by the whaling stations were a problem from the early days of whaling in Durban but complaints began to multiply after people began to settle on the Bluff around the stations. In 1965, the Union Whaling Company spent R65000 on foam scrubbing equipment to try and eliminate the smell from the meat drying plant.

On 23 April 1974, the Daily News reported that there had been many complaints from nearby residents about the smell. Mr Les Surmon, joint managing director of Union Whaling, said that the warm and sultry weather had meant that there was little wind to blow the smell away. He said that the problem was that there were homes on the Bluff almost on the level of the whaling station chimneys. The company had managed to reduce the smell by 95% but, he said, he doubted whether it would ever be completely eliminated.

Jon McDonald told me of an experience when a very irate local phoned up to complain about the smell and he told her jokingly that he would switch it off for her. By sheer chance, the wind changed direction at that moment and blew the smell out to sea, leaving the woman satisfied. On another occasion, she complained to the company's managing director asking him why he didn't do something about the smell, like the polite young man she had spoken to previously.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

A view of the Premier whaling station taken in 1947.


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

Some of the catchers were equipped with ASDIC [or Sonar] equipment which they used to locate and track whales under the surface of the sea. This was at the height of the Cold War and sometimes the catchers would detect submarines going about their stealthy undersea business. John McDonald told me that the contacts were always reported to the South African Navy but that some of them turned out not have been South African vesels and might even have been [gasp!!] Russian.

On one occasion, at least, according to a 1972 news report, the whales nearly got their own back on a catcher. The catcher Edwin Cook had apparently been hunting off Margate and was towing her catch of four whales in heavy seas just off the Bluff when waves rolled a whale against the side of the ship.

The harpoon in the whale's side apparently knocked a hole in the catcher and she came close to sinking before the crew could put a temporary plug in the hole and start pumping out the water. For a time, the captain believed that he might have to beach the vessel on the Bluff to save her from sinking, but she managed to limp into harbour.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

A view of the Union whaling station taken in 1954.


<== Click picture to view an enlargement.

The Union Whaling Company experienced a serious decline in the number of baleen whales caught and, in 1967, made a loss of R400000. The company slashed its staff complement and catcher fleet in half and managed to make a profit of R80000 during the following year.

The writing was on the wall for South Africa's whaling industry, however, because the conservation movement was gaining momentum all around the world, especially in the USA, and there was growing pressure to ban whaling. Union Whaling was determined to survive and started a program to find other sources for the raw materials they needed.

Pressure on the company increased in 1974 when fuel oil prices shot through the roof, as a result of the Middle East Oil Embargo. The company's catchers used between 8 and 16 tons of fuel oil a day and the whaling station also used a vast amount of it to power steam winches and for rendering down whale blubber and drying whalebone and meat.

Peter Froude, the company's last factory manager, told me that he remembers that fuel oil cost around R8 a ton in 1970 and that this rose to R60 a ton in 1974. The highly successful Durban firm of Fuel Firing Systems was founded at this time by Tony Hurter, Les Surmon's brother in law, to try reduce the company's fuel bill by making fuel out of used lubricating oil. [This they still do in 2005 and they have recently developed a plant which can return used oil to a 'virgin' just-out-of-the-ground state]

The moves to find alternate sources of raw materials and fuel oil came to nothing, however, because the company was sold. Abraham Larsen had had the controlling interest in the company until he sold it in the 1950s to Unit Securities. They later sold it to Weil & Asheim who decided to take a quick profit by shutting the operation down at the end of the 1975 season and selling off the assets.

Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

*** Caption corrected 7 March 2005.

New information which has just come to light is that this picture must have been taken just after the company's disasterous 1967 season because it shows the catcher Wilfred Fearnhead which was sold to the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Albany, Western Australia, shortly thereafter.


<== Click picture to view a wallpaper-sized enlargement (1024/768px).

For a time afterwards, there was a lot of speculation in the press about the establishment of a whaling museum in the city. The Simon van der Stel Foundation even got as far as buying two of the remaining catchers, the CG Hovelmeier and the Pieter Molenaar, for R9000 the pair, in an attempt to preserve them.

Efforts to establish the museum came to nothing and the two catchers were sold and refitted in Durban. It was announced that the vessels were to be fish tenders but, in fact, they were intended for the pirate whaling trade.
The vessels were equipped with freezing plants and would apparently sail up to unsuspecting whales, catch them, haul them up on deck and cut them up. One of the ships was later sunk off the west coast of Africa when, according to Peter Froude, a whale partly attached to the catcher slipped overboard making the vessel capsize.

At least one of the other catchers, the FH Hughes, was deliberately sunk 8km off Durban in a naval exercise. The vessel had put in 25 years of service and was scuttled on 19 December 1975, joining the many other vessels which have shared the same fate near Durban.

I remember being taken on boat trip round the harbour when I was in primary school and being shown the whales floating in the water near the slipway on the Bluff. I seem to remember that one of the kids' father was the captain of a catcher, which added a lot of interest to the trip for us.


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