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History of Whaling: "Thar she blows!"

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Article received from: "The Cape Odyssey"

Click Here to see photographs of the old whaling station at Donkergat, Saldanha Bay

whaleTHAR SHE BLOWS! From the moment that a half-way station at the Cape was mooted, The Council of Seventeen of the Dutch East India Company was aware of the presence of whales from the report of the survivors of the Nieuw Haerlem, wrecked 1647, who witnessed their presence.

Jan Van Riebeek also used the development of a whale-catching industry as one of the points in his favour for his selection as Commander of the post. In 1653 he dispatched a hooker to Saldanha Bay to try whaling. The results were poor though, partly because the whales were only found in the Bay in winter when the weather was stormy and also due to the shallow water of the Bay. Because of this shallowness a harpooned whale rose more frequently, thereby retaining its strength and causing the boats to be dragged far out to sea. The whole idea of whaling at the Cape was dropped by the Dutch soon afterwards.

Whaling thereafter was sporadic but the American War of Independence brought American Whalers to the South Atlantic and by the year 1788 over 40 ships were collecting full loads of whale oil off the Cape. In 1807 the Earl of Caledon, the British Commander at the Cape, reported whales being caught near and about Dassen Island and in Saldanha Bay, but the latter did not become the scene of the processing as this was done in Table Bay.

The first shore station in Saldanha Bay was established in 1909 by a Norwegian, Johan Bryde, who set up a factory at Donkergat, near the tip of the peninsula that forms the southern pillar of the entrance to the bay. While the factory was under construction, Bryde used a converted sealer, the Vale, as a floating factory ship and this was followed by the Mathilde, a dismasted sailing ship. Three whale-catchers from Sandefjord in Norway, the Falken, Neptune and Carmen, soon followed and became the start of the modern South African whaling fleet.

In 1910, another Norwegian looked at Saldanha Bay and liked what he saw. The next year he was back with three Iceland catchers – Mosvalla, Skarpkjeddin and Aogni and a base was set up at Salamander Bay, just around the corner from Donkergat. These little Saldanha Bay catchers developed quite a reputation for daring, although this was not achieved without casualties. The most tragic loss was the Mosvalla which, despite warnings, put to sea one dark stormy night, on her way to bunker in Cape Town and was last seen breasting a mountainous sea off Vondeling Island. A piece of deckhouse planking was all that washed ashore.

The outbreak of the First World War galvanised the whaling industry into new life as whale oil was scarce and used for many things including the manufacture of nitro-glycerin for explosives. By the end of the war, other factories had been established at other places in South Africa and overproduction was eating into the profits. In 1930 the Great Depression came and due to falling prices of oil both Donkergat and Salamander Bay ceased to operate.

After the Second World War, the whaling stations reopened and continued to operate until 1967 when whales became scarce and the stations once again closed down.

Today, all that remains are the “bones” of a few of the whalers seen protruding from the sands of the beaches on the shores of the Bay and a few momentos in local restaurants and private homes. Attempts to establish a whaling museum are being revived so that these memories of a bygone age can be preserved for future generations.

By Graeme Clemitson, Saldanha Bay

Click Here to see photographs of the old whaling station at Donkergat, Saldanha Bay

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