Historic Whaling Station, Albany, Western Australia: Is whale flensing the worst job in Australian history?

The only thing more grim than being on the flensing deck at Albany's Cheynes Beach Whaling Company would have been falling off it. Between 1952 and 1978, the flensers at the last whaling station in Australia had the grossest of tasks to perform.

Their job was to winch the whale carcasses ashore, then set about them with huge, razor sharp knives. They had to cut the fifteen metre sperm whales into small enough strips for the blubber to fit into a cooker and be boiled into liquid form.

They would spend all day – irrespective of weather conditions - in rubber boots, shorts and T-shirts, hacking the whales to pieces. They'd be continually surrounded in piles of blood and blubber, ever in danger of slicing a hand off with a misjudged flail of the knife.

But that was the least of the worries. The water was a far worse place than the flensing deck. It was stained red with whale blood, and full of the creatures that are traditionally attracted to whale blood. Sharks of pretty much every description – including massive great whites – would be fighting for their slice of the feast. 

"Sharks would headbutt the jetty, trying to knock men into the water," says the guide leading tours round the mercifully cleaned-up site. Flensing was a job so dangerous that no insurers would insure the men who did it. But it was very well paid, and seen by the men who did it a little like WA's fly-in fly-out miners would see job now. Hard, but worth it.

The dangers, however, were not seen as the worst part of the deal. "The smell was so bad," says the guide. "If you ask a whaler what he remembers, it's the smell. It's permanently ingrained. If there was a single upside, it's that he could clear a pub or restaurant just by walking in."

Australia's whaling industry caught its last prey on 20 November 1978, when an 11-metre female sperm whale was dragged up to the flensing deck. The next day, the whalers, the flensers, the engineers and the other staff at the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company were out of a job. The whaling station is now the lynchpin of the Discovery Bay complex (www.discoverybay.com.au) on the Flinders Peninsula.

The buildings of the whaling station have been left in situ. The humungous machines in the boiler room and processing factory show the scale of the operation; the whale skeletons on display show the scale of what was being fed into the operation.

The tanks used to store the whale oil – they're big enough to have kept over 750,000 litres of it on site at any one time – are now theatres showing films about the whaling industry and sea life. 

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Opposite, the Cheynes IV ship that went out 50km south to hunt whales off the continental shelf is moored. The narrow beds, the hulking steam engines and explosive harpoon gun are still in place. Pictures of former skipper line the walls, and displays tell grisly tales of injuries incurred – one skipper lost his leg after the harpoon rope got wrapped around it.

But the photos do make one thing hit home – whatever your views on whaling, these were real people who lost the industry that sustained them and their families. It may have been hard, gruesome, dangerous, smelly work, but it took Albany a decade afterwards to recover from the loss of whaling.

These days, whales have become a valuable source of income again. But the business comes from watching them rather than killing them. John Woodbury, who skippers the Sail-A-Way for Albany Whale Tours (www.albanywhaletours.com.au), doesn't do a very good job of disguising his adoration of the big beasts. 

"Hello you beauuuu-tiful creature," he says repeatedly, enraptured by a mother and calf hanging out near the cliffs under the National ANZAC Centre.  On the other side, a male southern right tries to steal the attention by branching flamboyantly. The waters of King George Sound, once a whale graveyard, are now clearly teeming with life.

But John says the effects of human interference are still being felt. "Whale numbers have increased by about 10 per cent each year since whaling stopped. But numbers aren't the only measurement – there's vitally too. And that's harder to assess.

"What I do know is that the whales we see are smaller and less energetic, while the humpbacks are calving further south than they used to," he adds.

One thing's for sure: the whales enjoy their encounters with the boats far more today than they did back in the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company era. The people who get to interact with them are having a much better time too. Long may that flensing deck stay blood, blubber and shark-free.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia.

See also: The untouched Australian islands home to notorious horror
See also: 165 pegs of hell: Australia's scariest tourist attraction

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