Remains of the bay

Albany's old whaling station has become a world-class museum, writes Max Anderson.

Australia is so preposterously big that the most amazing things become lost to us. I reckon Lord Howe Island is the Tahiti of Australia but could a more beautiful island be any less known? Then there's Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges: the outpost is home to fossils of the oldest-known spinal cords on the planet, yet it's more famous for the "road-kill grill" served at the Prairie Hotel.

And there's this: a photo of a man on a timber deck who uses a blade longer than a hockey stick to cut a whale into long, pale strips.

The picture is in a tin shed beside sparkling blue waters off Albany in Western Australia. I'm astonished by it - and strangely moved, though not by the butchered whale. The photo is in washy Kodachrome colour; the man wears AFL shorty shorts, a grey vest and a haircut last seen on The Paul Hogan Show. It was taken about 1975.

This is Whale World - and a bit of Australian history that has somehow been swallowed, Jonah-like, and dragged to the bottom of Discovery Bay, off Albany.

It's awful - the name "Whale World", that is. Long before arriving I fear I'll be directed around a theme park by a smiling cartoon orca, slurping on dolphin shakes and rapping my knuckles against the inevitable fibreglass blue whale.

But Whale World is a museum, a heritage-listed processing plant and, more correctly, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station. It was built in 1953 in a sheltered bay off King George Sound, its huge corrugated sheds and vats ranged along slopes of grass and shrub, looking down on docks and slipways hung with cogs, chains and hoists.

It's all still here, including the muscular Cheynes IV whale chaser; 530 tonnes of black bows and steel decks moored tight in the small dock. Even though the complex has been hammered by more than 60 winters, it's shipshape, gleaming beneath a clear sky and smelling of brine and fresh marine paint.

For some people, however, Whale World will never be clean.

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"The water ran red, the sharks ran wild," says Glenn Russell, the gently spoken general manager, who is guiding a group of visitors. "The water was lousy with sharks - the men would stand here and shoot them to keep them off the whale carcasses.

"It wasn't a nice time," Russell says matter-of-factly, "but that's what we did."

He's referring to "we" as Australia, the nation whose nationals board Japanese whaling ships in protest, the nation that killed its last whale in 1978.

That final animal was No.679, a sperm whale taken by the Cheynes IV under skipper Axel Christensen. Like the thousands before it, the carcass was stripped of its blubber on the flensing deck while the head was hoisted onto the cutting deck - the timber platform on which we're standing, the same deck where the mid-'70s Kodachrome was snapped.

"The head was too dense to cut up by hand so they used this ..." We look up at an ominous three-metre saw, its canoe-sized blade pointing at the sky. Thirty-six years ago it was driven by steam, slogging noisily back and forth to slice through jaws and skull. Some visitors shift uneasily on the deck, one woman turns her back.

"The pieces of the head went down through here" - Russell indicates a hole in the deck — "into the digesters. This part of the operation was considered so dangerous that no insurance company would cover the men who worked here. Actually, a bloke fell in here, once.

"Amazingly, they got him out; he suffered some serious burns but he survived," he says.

A "digester" sounds as diabolical as a "steam-saw" and a "flensing deck". We're taken to see a digester in the "whale solubles shed". It's a giant steel cooker that was once superheated with pressurised steam and rotated to reduce the material to a stew.

"Each tank could hold the oil of 100 whales," Russell says, "and there are three of them." As big as any in a modern refinery, the three tanks still dominate the silhouette of the station.

"Hang on," I say, "we were into the second half of the 20th century - what use did we have for whale oil?"

"It was a very high-grade lubricant that was good for operating at all temperatures - in extreme heat and extreme cold. By the 1970s it was being used in jet engines and spacecraft."

I'm confounded by the notion of West Australians in their shorts and Bewdy Newk moustaches employing 19th-century flensing techniques to help with space exploration.

Some of the men, now in their 70s and 80s, occasionally show people around the museum. "When you get them talking, they've got some amazing stories," Russell says.

We continue through the whale solubles shed, stopping beside a steam engine that is fired up to play a lovely industrial symphony. But people want to talk about the mammals now: how deep do they go, where are they heading on their migration, how have numbers recovered since whaling stopped?

Russell appreciates the sensitivities and seems more relaxed when talking about the magnificence of cetaceans. He leads us into another cavernous shed, this one dominated by the skeleton of a pygmy blue whale, 22 metres long.

There are bizarre treasures within this space, the like of which I've not seen in the world's finest natural history museums. Among them is a humpback skeleton with its baleen: these fine plankton-sieving fibres are rarely seen intact, but presumably they survive here thanks to the local expertise in reducing whale tissue.

I'm also fascinated to find a Nescafe jar of marble-sized bugs preserved in alcohol, bearing a label that reads "whale lice".

Then we enter the cylindrical oil tanks, two of which have been converted to theatres. They're hot, smelly and dark. One houses a sit-down 3D show about whales, the other invites you to climb a curving staircase and look down at a movie projected on the floor. The shows are interesting but the bravura of putting people into such a discomforting space - one which used to hold the harvest from slaughtered whales but now echoes ominously - is breathtaking.

The best museums are immersive experiences and, no question, I feel immersed.

The Cheynes Beach Whaling Company closed its doors on November 21, 1978. Russell says the station is unique in the world and an important journey for visitors to take - a place that shows how we made the transition from predator to observer.

Sure enough, not far from the slipway where the man in AFL shorts worked with his blade, close to where the sharks circled in blood-red waters, there's a sign. It reads: "Keep your eye on the sea for whales and dolphins."

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly to Perth from Sydney (5hr non-stop) and Melbourne (4hr non-stop) with fares from $165 one way. Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne only for $101 one-way. Skywest Airlines has a fare from Perth to Albany (75min) for about $300 return. It takes about five hours to drive from Perth to Albany.

Whale World is open daily 9am-5pm. Entry costs $28 adults, $10 children 6-12, $58 family, which includes a free guided tour as well as entry to all exhibits including the Cheynes IV. (For the record, Whale World does have a fibreglass blue whale.) At Frenchman Bay Road, Albany; phone (08) 9844 4021, see whaleworld.org.

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