Historical whaling in Western Australia

Whaling in and around Albany started in the late 18th century (1700 to 1799) when the American whalers from the New England area (New Bedford, Massachusetts, etc) were sailing in all the worlds oceans (except the Southern Ocean) in search of whales. In those times whale oil was a valuable product as they were the only source of oil for lamps, etc. Whalebone was also a valuable product. Whaling voyages were extremely profitable and the ships would sail off for years at a time and hopefully return with a full cargo. The profits from such a voyage could exceed $500,000 USD which in those days was an enormous sum of money. The American whalers visited the West Australian coast even before European settlement. The whaling captains kept meticulous logbooks, and these still exist today. Here is a map compiled from these logbooks that have been digitised showing voyages off the West Australian coast from around 1780 to 1880.

It is remarkable that over 200 years after these ships sailed these waters that their steps can be retraced in so much detail.

After European settlement the whaling ships called into West Australian ports to replenish supplies. They were an important source of income to the struggling settlers. You can see that Albany was a popular port of call and there would often be several ships at a time in port. At times there were so many ships off the coast that the numbers of crew on the ships would have been close to the population of places like Albany, Augusta and Busselton.

These American whalers had a devastating impact on whale numbers and by the 1840s numbers of Southern Right Whales being caught had dropped dramatically. They also chased humpback and sperm whales. Sperm whales were the prized whale as the oil was very clean and much more valuable. The numbers of American whaling ships dropped from around the 1860’s on because of the discovery of oil below ground in the US and because of the American Civil War. The Confederates (from the South) wanted to deprive the north of an important source of income so they sent warships out to sink the whaling ships.