Southern Right Whales entered Walker Bay millennia before the bay was named and Europeans came to settle where Westcliff is now. The whales came to give birth to calves and take care of them until they were developed enough to make the long journey back to the Antarctic. There was no one to witness this and by the time residents of Hermanus began to notice them, Southern Right whales were being hunted and killed on a huge scale, writes DR ROBIN LEE of the Hermanus History Society.
Human beings have hunted whales from the earliest days. Woodcuts and scrimshaw (carving on a whale tooth) from the Middle Ages show whales being harpooned. But the impact on whale numbers was negligible until several technologies were in place. The harpoon became effective once it was made of metal, rather than wood. The increasing size of ships allowed them to follow a wounded whale until it died and could be brought on board.
In the late 19th century these advances were followed by even more devastating weapons. The harpoon was no longer thrown by one person, but could be propelled by explosives.
In the 20th century still more sophisticated methods became available. An explosive device (i.e. a bomb) was attached to the harpoon and exploded when the harpoon had penetrated a metre into the whale. Death was instantaneous – or so it was thought until proper research showed that on average whales lived in agony for six minutes after the explosion and one they recorded lived for 56 minutes.
Hermanus has never been in the whaling business. This was mainly due to the fact that stocks of fish were so vast that fishermen could make a living safe from the dangers of whaling.
Also, the Old Harbour (known then as Visbaai) was inadequate for the size of boats suitable for whaling. There was a whaling station at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay in the early 20th century, but after investors went to a lot of trouble to build it, it operated for only a few years. Nevertheless, 300 whales were killed. Whalers did operate from Gansbaai, but they went south into the deep ocean in pursuit of their prey.
Whales were hunted because virtually every part could be used. The oil was most important. It provided light and heating in millions of homes before petroleum and electricity came along. The baleen was used to make a wide variety of carved objects, such as snuff boxes. Thinner bones were used in producing women’s corsets, an obligatory item of clothing throughout the 19th century.
Three million whales were killed before the International Whaling Commission was created in the 1940s, to regulate affairs. Of these, two million were Southern Right whales. For long periods in the 20th century no whales were seen in Walker Bay, because they simply no longer existed.
So, it was quite a sensation when one female appeared off Hermanus for several consecutive years in the 1950s. The locals named her Wendy. She a lot of time near Fick’s Pool and the little cottage on the cliff nearby was named the Wendy House. It is a possibility that she was not the same whale every year, as no method of identification of whales was available. Even now, it requires close-up images and working out the number and placing of ‘callosities’ (those white growths on the whale’s head), to tell one individual from another.
Conservation of whales has handed a gift to Hermanus. In the 30 years since whales started appearing in numbers, Hermanus has developed from a nice quiet place for a restful holiday to ‘the land-based whale-watching capital of the world’.
In recent years, the coastline of the Overstrand Municipality has become closely linked with whales. The ‘Cape Whale Coast’ logo appears on virtually every website for tourists from Pringle Bay to Danger Point and beyond.
Sea-based animals about which the average Hermanus resident knows very little, are now the single largest tourist attraction and account for much of the tourist income on which the town depends. Whales – and, especially, Southern Right whales – are now generally respected as a type of ‘gentle giant’ in nature and as a species that came back from near extinction by human beings. Their numbers along our coast are growing at 7% to 8% per annum, which is as rapidly as is consistent with the female’s gestation period.
Let’s not spoil the whale gift. Hermanus does not have a good record for marine conservation. We fished out Walker Bay and we harvested most of the millions of natural abalone, while leaving the rest to poachers. Neither fish nor abalone will ever return in their former abundance.
While we enjoy the presence of the whales we must avoid placing excessive stresses on them or allowing the essential sense of place of Hermanus to disappear in (over-) development for its own sake.
Sure, encourage people to come as tourists to see the whales and if they find they would like to live here, well and good. But if they demolish an authentic fisherman’s cottage (with Municipal approval) and build a modernistic house for themselves, we start to lose the real spirit of our town.
Stony Point Whaling Station
In 1912, the owner of the farm Waaygat at a little known locality called Stony Point, leased 30 morgen (60 hectares) to Captain Frank Cook of Cape Town for three years to conduct a fishing and whaling operation. Whaling with all its profit and all its horror had come to the Overstrand.
Cook formed a company called The Southern Cross Whaling Company Ltd. and imported an experienced Norwegian whaler, a Mr Johannsson, who married a local girl. By 1913 two steamships operating as whalers were at work. These were the Blink and the Southern Cross. Between them they killed 179 whales in the seas off Cape Hangklip in 1913. All were processed at the whaling station.
When the Southern Cross Company went into liquidation in 1915, for reasons unknown, the Durban-based company, The Shepstone Whaling and Fishing Company, acquired the operation and continued whaling, with about 300 whales killed each year between 1916 and 1920. By 1917 the number of employees had increased to 220 and six steamers were at sea.
In 1935 the Walsh family terminated the lease at Hangklip and sold all their property holdings in the area to the Hangklip Syndicate Ltd. for the purpose of township development. The new township was named Betty’s Bay. The buildings at the whaling station were simply allowed to decay, and, while some, such as the oil tanks, have disappeared, other buildings, including the Manager’s house, still remain.
The site at Stony Point has recently been upgraded because of its historical significance and informative signage erected by CapeNature. It is well worth a visit, and is immediately adjacent to the growing penguin colony at Stony Point.
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