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The history of whaling in the Victor Harbor area of the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula began at The Bluff where the first whalers and sealers settled from the mid to late 1700's and set up stations and lookouts. THe peak of the Bluff is about 150 metres above sea level and affords a view of the sea horizon for more than 50km. This made it easy for the naked eye to spot whales within 10 km so the long boats could be launched to row out and harpoon the whales.
In 1801 an American brig"UNION" of 99 tons,4 guns and with a crew of 38 from New York wintered for 4 months on Kangaroo Island. It's Captain, Captain Pemberton, employed his crew to build a schooner for whaling which they named "Independance". It was built from local timbers. They sailed her to Victor Harbor for the sealing and whaling seasons.
However, official records relating to the white settlement of Victor Harbor prior to 1801 are difficult to find, as the region remained quite a mystery to colonists until Capt Mathew Flinders began his study of flora and fauna along the South Australian coastline. In 1802 while Flinders explored and mapped the coast in HMS Investigator he crossed paths with the French explorer Nicholas Baudin of the "GEOGRAPHIQUE". The meeting seemed uneventful, except the French and English were at war. Not only were the soldiers fighting on the battlefields of Europe,both countries were competing in the geographical exploration of the globe, and their meeting had a marked impact on Flinders. He was so profoundly touched by the encounter and the common bond shared with fellow botanist,Baudin, that he named the sweeping coastline from the Murray mouth to The Bluff "Encounter Bay".
The whales visiting South Australian waters were originally called Black Whales and are mostly adults - pregnant females, or males and females ready to mate,prior to the birth of a calf the following year. These whales found themselves in a life or death struggle,because they were slow swimmers,had a fondness for inshore waters and they floated to the surface when killed. They were easy targets for whalers. They became known as the right whale to kill hence the name Southern Right Whale.
Samuel Stevens, a relation of George Fife Angus, established the whaling station at Encounter Bay, at the base of The Bluff. He sent the ship John Pirie to Hobart to recruit experienced whalers. In 1836 he chose a site for the whaling station close to what is now the Whaler's Inn Resort complex. Stevens named the site Rosetta Cove and gave the name Rosetta Head to the seaward promontary of the Bluff, after the wife of George Fife Angus.
The whales usually stay in South Australian waters for 5 months of the year from May to October after their long journey from Antarctica. They are often seen where whaling stations were once located. The cows and calves tend to spend most of their time in water depths of around 5 metres where their is a sandy bottom and often can be seen as close as 100 metres off shore. They usually move further offshore in rough weather to avoid being blown onto the rocky shoreline.
At the peak of the season around August there can be well over 200 Southern Right Wales in SA waters and many can be individually identified by the white callosity pattern on their heads. This enables researchers to identify them if sighted again at another time and place. In this way a whale's life history can be compiled and individual behaviours observed during the season. Assuming a 3 year breeding cycle only about 1/3 to 1/2 of adult Southern Right Whales visit breeding grounds each year. We do not see many immature animals so we can deduce that the total population that visit us may only number 500, or maybe a few more.
Once a whale was harpooned and killed, it would be towed slowly back to shore, which was a very strenuous task for the small boats. Upon reaching the shore, Longshoremen stripped the blubber off the carcass which was then taken to the Try works for rendering (boiling down). Try works consisted of great iron pots and a large furnace,often fuelled by scrap blubber. The oil was separated from the blubber and poured warm into wooden casks for shipment to another settlement or indeed,overseas. Seals were also killed for their fur, skin, bones and oil. Whale blubber was used for lamp oil, soap making, ointments, medicines, leather, candles, lipstick and fibre dressing. Bone ash was used in making porcelain. The baleen plating (whalebone from their mouths) found a number of uses from umbrella ribs, corsets, industrial brushes to whips.
At the peak period of the local whaling industry, there were three whaling stations in the area at Granite island, The Bluff and Victor Harbor. Whaling had become one of the most lucrative industries, as seal populations became somewhat decimated and the demand for oil increased so too did the money to be made from whales.
Southern Right Wales are finally once more our main visitors each year but we also see a few Humpback Whales in the area during the season.
Bashams Beach is an ideal breeding ground for the Southern Right Whales as witnessed by the previous historical visitations, the temperate climate and an ideal water depth with a sandy bottom. It is also thought that the high foothills behind the beach area assists in whale communicatiobns and warding off predators such as sharks.
In a busy year, we have seen up to 40 Southern Right Whales in the area. In 2009 there were 18 visible from the dunes all at the same time.
Another, but remote and distant location from Adelaide, that is a favourite destination in South Australia for our whale visitors, is off the coast of Ceduna. It is a very popular tourist stop for people driving to or from Perth during the whale season. It is a favorite breeding ground for the whales and it is not unusual to see up to 200 of them from the cliffs of The Great Australian Bight.