The Amazing History and Stories of Whaling in Durban.
It seems that everyone has gone sardine crazy recently and this prompted us to look into the history of sardines. However, we stumbled across something rather interesting and unknown to many. Did you know that our shores were once famous for the whaling Industry? This beautiful article written by Allan Jackson is from the www.fad.co.za site and reveals some incredible history and stories.
Whaling in Durban – Allan Jackson
Many of the younger people living in Durban won’t know that it was once a busy centre of the whaling industry. Thousands of migrating whales were caught in the seas nearby and towed back here to be processed into a number of products which were highly prized by consumers, both local and overseas.
Whaling in Durban stopped in 1975 but older residents won’t have any problem remembering those days and, in particular, the very bad smells which wafted from the whaling stations on the seaward side of the Bluff and made the lives of people living nearby a misery.
The industry in Durban started in 1907 when the Norwegian Consul in Durban, Jacob Egeland, went back to Norway and, with fellow Norwegian Johan Bryde, raised money to start a whaling operation in Durban. The two men formed the South African Whaling Company in 1907 and brought two ships for catching whales to Durban from Sandefjord in Norway. They started hunting whales in 1908 and managed to catch and kill 106 of the huge animals that year. [Bryde later had the Bryde whale named after him]
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 on their way south again. During these months, the catchers could reap a rich harvest of whales without having to sail much more than 150 miles from Durban.
The catchers would kill whales by shooting them with 165-pound metal harpoons loaded with explosive. They would then pump the dead whales full of compressed air so that they would float and, once the vessel had finished hunting, it would tow the whales it had killed back to Durban. Whales would be brought right into the bay and pulled up out of the water on a slipway on the bay side of the Bluff.
They were then taken into the whaling station nearby where they went through a process called flensing, which is just another way of saying that they were cut up and their blubber, meat and bone separated. The blubber was rendered down into oil, which was the most important product made from whales during the early years of whaling in Durban, and was used to make soap, margarine and cooking fat.
Other products produced from sperm whales included sperm oil, which was used as a general 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 in the Japanese market. One of the rarest and most pricey byproducts of whaling is Ambergris which is actually an intestinal blockage found in a small percentage of sperm whales. Ambergris does not loose its smell for decades and provides a compound used as a fixative in the most expensive perfumes.
The spot where the slipway and whaling station were built had been very popular with Durban residents who liked to go there to swim and have picnics, but the whale carcasses floating in the water attracted so many sharks that soon nobody dared swim there.
The smell from the first whaling station was very bad and there were so many complaints from residents that, after the first whaling season, it was decided to move the station to the seaward side of the Bluff where there were fewer people to complain. Whales were still brought into the harbour and pulled up the slipway, but now they were loaded onto a specially-built train, which was unique in the world, and taken to the whaling station.
In 1909, 155 whales were brought into Durban but after that, Jacob Egeland ended his partnership with Johan Bryde and started the Union Whaling and Fishing Company with his cousin Abraham Larsen. The whaling trade must have been very profitable because there were 13 whaling companies registered in Natal by 1912 but only six ever operated.
Most of the whaling companies failed as result of World War I but the Premier Whaling Company started again in 1919 and, in 1922, Egelund and Larsen started the Union Whaling Company. The two companies operated 9 catchers each, shared the slipway in the harbour, and had whaling stations near each other on the other side of the Bluff.
It was about one and a half miles by rail from the slipway to the Union whaling station and another mile to the one belonging to 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, owner of the Premier Whaling Company, sold out to the Union Whaling Company which operated both whaling stations until 1953, when the old Union station was closed. The company used the Premier station until whaling came to end in Durban 1975.
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