By Allan Jackson

MANY of us living in Durban are unaware that the city once supported a thriving whaling industry. Thousands of migrating whales were caught at sea and towed back to Durban to be processed into a number of products. These were highly prized by both local and overseas consumers.

Whaling ceased in Durban in 1975, but older residents won’t have any problem remembering the bad smells which wafted from the whaling stations on the seaward side of the Bluff, making the lives of those who lived in the vicinity a misery.

The Durban whaling industry started in 1907 after the Norwegian Consul in Durban, Jacob Egeland, together with fellow Norwegian Johan Bryde, raised funds in their home country to start a processing plant. The two men formed the South African Whaling Company in the same year, and brought two whaling ships to Durban from Sandefjord in Norway. They started hunting whales in 1908, managing to catch and kill 106 of the huge marine animals that year.

The whaling season in Durban lasted from March to September, because whales would migrate northward past Durban at the start of the Antarctic winter and pass by again on their way back south. During these months, the whalers could reap a rich harvest of whales without having to sail much more than 150 miles from Durban.

Whales are mammals and have to surface regularly to breathe. This makes it easy for whalers to locate and kill them. The animals breathe through a blowhole on their heads, and produce a large spout of water vapour when they exhale, making them visible at great distances.

The whaling ships would sail up close to whales and shoot them with 165-pound metal harpoons loaded with explosive charges. These would explode inside the whale and kill it. The harpoon was attached to the whaling vessel by a rope so that the whale wouldn’t sink once it had been harpooned.

The whaler would then pump the dead whale full of compressed air so that it would float and, once the vessel had finished hunting, it would tow the whales back to Durban. The whales would be brought into the bay and pulled up out of the water onto a slipway on the bay side of the Bluff.

The carcasses were then taken into the nearby whaling station, where they went through a process called flensing, during which they were cut up and their blubber, meat and bones separated. The blubber was rendered down into oil - the most important by-product made from whales during the early years of whaling in Durban. The oil was used to make soap, margarine and cooking fat.

Other products produced from sperm whales included sperm oil, which was used as a multi purpose lubricant for delicate machinery; spermaceti wax, used for candles and in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; bone and protein meal, used for animal feed; and meat extract, used as a flavouring base for soups. In later years, frozen whale meat gained in popularity, especially on the Japanese market.

One of the rarest and most costly by- products of whaling is ambergris. This exotic-sounding substance is actually an intestinal blockage found in a small percentage of sperm whales. Ambergris retains its smell for decades and is used as a fixative in the most expensive perfumes.

The spot where the slipway and whaling station were built had formerly been popular with Durban residents, who liked to swim and picnic here. However, the whale carcasses soon attracted so many sharks that nobody dared venture into the water.

The smell from the first whaling station attracted so many complaints from residents that it was decided to move the station to the less populated seaward side of the Bluff.

Whales were still brought into the harbour and pulled up the slipway, but now they were loaded onto a custom-built train – the only one of its kind in the world - and transported to the whaling station.

Over 150 whales were brought into Durban in 1909, but after that, Jacob Egeland ended his partnership with Johan Bryde, and instead started the Premier Whaling and Fishing Company with his cousin Abraham Larsen. The whaling trade must have been highly profitable because there were 13 whaling companies registered in Natal by 1912. Only six were ever operational, however.

Most of the whaling companies floundered as a result of World War I, but the Premier Whaling Company resumed its operations in 1919 and, in 1922, Egeland and Larsen founded the Union Whaling Company. The two companies operated nine whalers each, shared the slipway in the harbour, and had adjacent whaling stations on the far side of the Bluff.

It was about a mile and a half by rail from the slipway to the Union whaling station,and a further mile to the station owned by
the Premier Whaling Company. The specially designed train had two flatbed carriages which could carry one large whale, or two smaller ones, and it would transport whales to each of the whaling stations in turn.

In 1931 Lever Brothers, which by then owned the Premier Whaling Company, sold out to the Union Whaling Company. The latter organisation operated both whaling stations until 1953, when the old Union whaling station was closed. The company used the Premier station until whaling ended in Durban.

While whaling in Durban was mainly shore-based, the Union Whaling Company did undertake so-called pelagic whaling operations, which entailed catching whales and processing them aboard a factory ship at sea. The whalers would catch and kill whales and tow them back to the factory ship, where they would be processed and the by-products stored until the fleet reached shore.

In 1937 the company acquired a factory ship, the Uniwaleco, which would travel to the Antarctic with a number of whaling vessels to hunt during the summer season. In the Antarctic off-season, both the Uniwaleco and the whalers would operate in the waters around Madagascar, hunting humpback whales.

The Uniwaleco was requisitioned by the navy at the outbreak of World War II and was later sunk by a torpedo. The war reduced the level of whaling in Durban, with many of the newer whaling vessels being used by the South African Navy as minesweepers.
The Union Whaling Company bought an ex-factory ship, the Empire Victory, in 1949. She was renamed the Abraham Larsen and she and the whaling vessels sailed down to the Antarctic each year, crewed predominantly by Durbanites.

The Natal Mercury of 17 March 1952 reported that the Abraham Larsen had docked quietly in Durban the day before - a Sunday - after a four-and-a-half month trip to the Antarctic. The paper noted that the company had deliberately paid the 250 crew members from Durban only a few pounds each in cash, to prevent them from going ashore and being ‘fleeced by good-time girls, confidence men and thieves.’ Crew members could expect around £300 for their first trip to the Antarctic, and up to £480 after they had gained three years’ experience.

A newspaper article printed on 16 November 1955 reported that the Abraham Larsen and her fleet of whalers was about to sail on a trip ‘down to the ice.’ A Mr Knutsen, the Chief Steward, reported that the provisions for the voyage included 1,9 million cigarettes, 2000 pounds of tobacco, 1 015 bottles of spirits, 80 gallons of rum and 267 000 pounds of butter. Evidently a merry time was to be had by all.

The expeditions were highly successful, and a total catch of 2 200 whales was recorded. Unrestricted whaling by many nations in the Antarctic finally began to deplete the whale populations. The Union Whaling Company decided, after only seven seasons, that it would abandon Antarctic whaling and sell the Abraham Larsen to the Japanese.

The Durban-based whalers continued to hunt, however and, although experience had made them adept at finding their prey, from 1954 whales were located by plane, and the details of their location radioed back to the whalers.

The Aircraft Operating Company pioneered the initial flights from Stamford Hill Aerodrome, in a twin-engined aeroplane piloted by Ken Pinkerton. Abraham Larsen (not the Union Whaling Company founder) went along as the whale-spotter.

A 1963 news report stated that the flights began as a ten-day experiment, but proved so effective that aircraft had flown nearly a million miles on whale-spotting missions since 1954. It was recorded that the aircraft had spotted 11 874 whales. Almost half that number were caught and killed by the whalers.

The flights continued until the end of whaling operations in Durban. John McDonald, who was the last Chief Chemist for Union Whaling, told me that he went along for the ride one day towards the end of the whaling era. The pilot was an ex-RAF fighter pilot out to impress (or should that be scare?) the man from head office. John said his enduring memory of the nine-and-a-half-hour flight was of the aeroplane flying straight at the crow’s nest of a whaler, only banking away at the last possible instant. John also noted that he had had to be careful not to drink too much fluid before catching the flight, as there was no on-board toilet.

The smells from the whaling stations had always been a problem, but complaints increased as the Bluff became more heavily populated. In 1965 the Union Whaling Company spent R65 000 (a huge sum for the time) on foam scrubbing equipment in an attempt to eliminate the smell from the meat drying plant.

On 23 April 1974, the Daily News reported a slew of complaints from Bluff residents. Mr Les Surmon, joint Managing Director of Union Whaling, said that the warm and sultry weather had exacerbated the problem.

He said that the problem was that there were homes on the Bluff almost on the level of the whaling station chimneys. The company had managed to eliminate 95% of the smell, Surmon claimed, but he expressed doubt that the problem would ever be completely eliminated.

John McDonald also related an amusing incident when he was phoned by a very irate lady, and good-humouredly told her he would switch the smell off for her. By sheer chance, the wind changed direction at that moment and blew the smell out to sea, leaving the woman satisfied.

On another occasion the same lady complained to the company’s Managing Director, asking him why he didn’t do something about the smell like the polite young man she had spoken to previously.

On at least one occasion, according to a 1972 news report, the whales nearly got their own back on a whaler. The whaling vessel Edwin Cook had been hunting off Margate and was towing her catch of four whales in heavy seas just off the Bluff when waves rolled a whale against the side of the ship. The harpoon in the whale’s side knocked a hole in the vessel, which came close to sinking before the crew could temporarily plug the hole and start pumping out the water she had taken on board.

The Union Whaling Company began to experience a serious decline in the number of baleen whales caught and, in 1967, made a loss of R400 000. The company slashed its staff complement and fleet in half, managing to make a profit of R80 000 during the following year.

By now the conservation movement was gaining momentum all around the world, especially in the USA, and there was growing pressure to abandon whaling. The writing was on the wall for South Africa’s whaling industry. Union Whaling was determined to survive, however, and launched a program to find other sources of the raw materials they needed.

Pressure on the company increased in 1974 when fuel oil prices skyrocketed as a result of the Middle East Oil Embargo. The company’s whalers used between eight and 16 tons of fuel oil a day, and the whaling station also used a vast amount to power steam winches, render down whale blubber and dry whalebone and meat.

Moves to find alternate sources of raw materials and fuel oil came to nothing, and the company was finally sold.
Abraham Larsen had had the controlling interest in the company until he sold his shares to Unit Securities in the 1950s. Unit Securities, in turn, sold to Weil & Asheim, who decided to make a quick profit by shutting the operation down at the end of the 1975 season and selling off the assets.

For a while afterwards, there was a lot of discussion in the press about the establishment of a whaling museum in the city. The Simon van der Stel Foundation even went as far as buying two of the remaining whaling ships, the CG Hovelmeier and the Pieter Molenaar, in an attempt to preserve them. Sadly, efforts to establish the museum came to nothing, and the two vessels were sold and refitted in Durban. It was announced that the ships were to be used for fishing but, in fact, they were intended for the pirate whaling trade.

One of the ships was later sunk off the west coast of Africa when, according to Peter Froude, a whale partly attached to the vessel slipped overboard, causing it to capsize.  At least one of the other whalers, the F.H Hughes, was deliberately sunk 8km off Durban in a naval exercise. The vessel had put in 25 years of service and was scuttled on 19 December 1975.