Should you visit the Historic Whaling Station, Albany?

Should you visit the Historic Whaling Station, Albany?

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Albany, Western Australia is a place of historic importance, both in the early days of the Swan River colony and the First World War. The area has some of the best Australian beaches and King George Sound was once a busy whaling centre. Albany attractions are full of history and I listed the best places to visit in Albany in a previous article. Due to its cruel past, I initially had a slight hesitation… Should you visit the Historic Whaling Station, Albany?

Cheynes IV is a whale chaser on display at the Whaling Station in Albany
Cheynes IV

Should you visit the Historic Whaling Station, Albany?

Today, most countries ban commercial whaling. Killing whales for “research” doesn’t fool many and only Norway and Iceland still maintain commercial whaling. A few other countries still have some whaling practice for their aboriginal populations but overall, this is something of the past. So why visit the site of such gruesome and abhorrent practice?

At the Albany Whaling Station, there are many exhibits to see in your own time
Albany Whaling Station

On our trip from Perth to Albany, we did just that… Whaling no longer exists in Australia, or in most places, and that’s a good thing. But whaling was once an important industry, providing essential and prized products. This part of the world could be only remembered for having some of the best beaches in Western Australia. However, the Albany Whaling Station is the last operation to remain intact. Literally, the place is as it was left when the whaling company closed. The horrific smell, the streams of blood and the whale carcasses are gone, but the buildings and boats have been restored. Instead, you have an interactive and very interesting visit. 

You can book a tour from Albany to the Historic Whaling Station.

Whaling is often mentioned when you visit Australia and I’ve come across different sites in Bruny Island, Port Arthur and Maria Island in Tasmania but these have been completely dismantled and no buildings remain. Whaling is almost like a ghost, it was there but you can’t see it…

Discovery Bay became a tourist attraction called Whale World a few years after the closure of its commercial operation. Some say the smell of dead whales lingered for years and some of the workers became tour guides… For this reason, everything is very well preserved and you get a very good insight in whaling in Australia.

This sperm whale skeleton gives you an idea of how big they are
Sperm Whale Skeleton

Furthermore, there is no glorification of the whaling industry. It was relevant at some point, and whale products were very valuable. It is no longer necessary however, it’s interesting from a historical perspective.

History of Whaling in Australia

The Basques, in Northern Spain and South-West France, were the first to hunt whales in the 11th Century. Later on, the Dutch and the British established whaling industries. The Americans and many other nations followed. Norwegian whalers, in particular, became very skilled. In Australia, whaling was one of the first viable industries in the Swan River Colony as Western Australia was initially named. Fremantle was an important whaling centre.

The Albany Whaling Station has a very interesting museum
Albany Whaling Station Museum

The first whaling company was established in 1837 in King George Sound, less than ten years after the birth of the colony in 1829. A Norwegian company settled in Frenchman Bay in 1912 and it became a serious commercial operation in the 1920s however there were periods of decline, mainly during the world wars. Still, whale fishing became a part of Albany history.

The Cheynes Beach Whaling Company was born in 1952, and was initially allocated a quota of fifty whales. The company mostly hunted humpback whales, but also took some sperm whales and blue whales. At its peak, the company caught between 900 and 1,100 humpback whales and sperm whales in a year.

The Albany Historic Whaling Station is the only fully preserved one in Australia
Albany Historic Whaling Station

In 1963, hunting humpback whales was banned, so the focus shifted to sperm whales and some blue whales. On 20 November 1978, the last whale was caught and the company closed its operations a few days later. By that time, the whale quota had been significantly reduced, the licence was renewed year by year and the running costs had become unaffordable. Whale products, once highly sought after, weren’t so much in demand. So, the closure was a commercial decision.

Whaling Products

Up until the mid 20th century, whale hunting provided highly prized essential products. Sperm oil was used for lamp oil, candles, soaps, cosmetics and perfumes. Whale oil was used as cooking oil and margarine. Whalebone was used for umbrellas and corsets, whale meat was fit for human consumption. Animal feed and fertiliser were also extracted. So there were lots of uses… 

There were many products extracted from whales
Whaling Products

Amber Gris or Grey Amber was the most prized product and was used as a fixative in the perfume industry, but also had many other uses. Amber gris, a solid, waxy and flammable substance is still a slightly mysterious product, formed in the intestine of the sperm whale. Gradually, more modern products such as petroleum, wax for candles and nylon came to replace whale products.

Accommodation in Albany

There is plenty of Albany accommodation on AirBnb. We stayed at Brackenhurst Historic Home near Port Albany. This beautiful old house is in a quiet area of town and it was perfect for our needs.

There is plenty of good accommodation in Albany on Airbnb
Brackenhurst in Albany

Historic Whaling Station

There aren’t many whaling stations as well preserved as the one in Albany. In fact, this is the only one in Australia. 

Introduction tour

I highly recommend taking the introductory tour. The guide meets at the bench next to an oil tank and takes visitors on a tour, explaining how the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company operated in its day. It is absolutely worth doing in order to get an understanding of the different stages of the operation and the different buildings.

Take the time to visit the whale chaser Cheynes IV when you visit the Historic Whaling Station in Albany
Cheynes IV

After that, you are free to wander around and see the exhibits of this fascinating Albany tourist attraction at your own pace. I really liked the tour, I was able to get all the information, and then I wandered around taking photos without the crowd… This is why visiting the whaling station is one of the best things to do in Western Australia, you can spend as much time as you want… Albany sightseeing at its best!

The tour runs every hour on the hour, from 10am to 3pm and goes for 40 mns. I recommend a minimum of three hours to cover all the exhibits and enjoy the learning experience.

Flensing Deck

The flensing deck is built over a natural rock slipway. The whales were hoisted out of the water to be processed on land. Flensing comes from a Norwegian word and is essentially the removal of the blubber or fat before cutting up the meat. Whalers developed specialist tools for this gruesome job, several of them are on display in the museum.

The Flensing Deck at the Whaling Station is where the whales arrived for processing
Flensing Deck

Today, the flensing deck looks neat and roomy but it would have dripping in blood and sharks would have hung around the bay. No doubt, hunting whales and processing them is hard and disgusting work… Apparently, some crew members were assigned to shooting sharks if they took too much of a bite out of the prized whales…

Cutting Deck

The cutting deck is above the flensing deck. The large pieces of blubber were hoisted onto this next platform to be cut up and put in the cooking pots. At Albany, the cooking pots are actually under the surface of the deck, so all you see now are the wooden covers. The blubber was boiled to obtain whale oil, which had many different uses.

The whales were then taken to the cutting deck
Cutting Deck

Still on display is the giant saw used to cut the heads of humpback whales…

Boiler Room

The Whaling Station didn’t just catch whales, they processed them to extract various products. So, there is a lot of heavy machinery designed to operate the boilers and conduct other processing. Some of it still works today…

The Boiler Room is an important building of the Whaling Station in Albany
Boiler Room

Oil Tanks

The original oil tanks have been transformed into movie theatres, showing short films on whales and marine wildlife every ten minutes or so. The original oil tanks contained up to 60,000 litres of oil… The spirit there is definitely more about conservation, as opposed to exploitation…

At the Albany Whaling Station, the oil tanks now hold cinema theatre
Oil Tanks

Whales

The warehouses behind the oil tanks contain whale skeletons, a sperm whale and a humpback whale. The sheer size of the specimen gives you an idea of how challenging hunting would have been in the old days…

The Whaling Station in Albany has some very interesting blue whale skeletons
Blue Whale Skeleton

Whale watching Albany is a much nicer way to learn about whales…

Boats and Whale Chasers

Before the whaling industry benefited from advances in technology and thus became way too efficient, the whalers used these agile whaling ships, which couldn’t have been much bigger than their prey…

Old whale chaser like this one were used for hunting
Whale Chaser

The development of steam powered ships and the explosive whaling harpoon took the industry to a new efficiency and eventually led to over-fishing…

The development of whaling harpoons was a significant advance in technology
Whaling Harpoon

The Cheynes Beach Whaling Company eventually owned three “whale chasers”, one of which proudly sits at the entrance of the site. It was the costs associated with these boats that marked the end of the company. 

The Cheynes IV whale chaser sits proudly at the Albany Whaling Station
Cheynes IV

You can visit the Cheynes IV, built in Norway in 1948, including below deck and it’s a really interesting insight into life onboard… Imaging 20 crew living on the narrow quarters of this boat… Other ships of the fleet became rescue boats after the company closed, Cheynes III actually became a dive wreck. 

The whale chaser Cheynes IV is very well preserved
Cheynes IV

McBrides Hut

This bark cottage is very well preserved, complete with furniture and cooking equipment. William McBride worked on an American sealer and decided to settle in Albany in 1869.

McBrides Hut is a perfectly preserved whale hunter hut
McBrides Hut

He acquired some land near Frenchman Bay and built his little hut there. Incredibly, the hut and its contents were preserved…

Visit McBrides Hut at Albany Whaling Station
McBrides Hut

This is the humble life led by whale hunters at the end of the 19th century…

McBrides Hut has a very basic bedroom
McBrides Hut

Hilda Hotker Shell Collection

This incredible shell collection is on display in the visitor centre and is actually quite fascinating. The idea of admiring a shell collection may seem a little dorky at first but this one was assembled over a lifetime and is incredibly diverse… Beaches in Western Australia have indeed extraordinary resource…

There is an impressive shell collection at the Historic Whaling Station in Albany
Hilda Hotker Shell Collection

Albany, Australia

There are many more things to do in Albany and its surroundings, and it’s worth hanging around for a few days. The Torndirrup National Park is a short drive from Discovery Bay and there are many beautiful Western Australia beaches to explore in the area. We headed back from Albany to Perth after a few days, wishing we’d had more time.

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The Historic Whaling Station in Albany is a very interesting educational visit
When you visit Albany in Western Australia, don't miss the Historic Whaling Station
The Historic Whaling Station is one of the highlights of Albany, Western Australia

Have you visited the Historic Whaling Station in Albany? Do you recommend it? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!

22 Comments

  1. Eric Gamble

    July 20, 2020 at 7:01 am

    Of course we dont ever want to glorify a tragic or gruesome past where animals or people were harmed. However, I think it is always good to learn about it, for several reasons. Like you said whaling was an important part of perhaps the economy of all Australia and other countries around the world. Not to say that it was good but we as humans perhaps didnt understand the impact or cruelty that was being inflicted not to mention, in the early to mid 1800s or earlier in time, it may have been key to human survival or at least seemed that way. (sorry for that run on sentence). So, I think it would be interesting to explore the historic whaling station in Albany to learn what had happened & perhaps to keep eductating others so we dont return to a drastic businesses.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 21, 2020 at 9:08 am

      A lot of different products were made from whales, and some of them were very sought after. As they became obsolete, whaling was no longer required. Whaling became a very cruel practice in modern times, when high powered harpoons meant that whales had no chance to escape and it was too easy to catch large numbers of animals…

  2. Joanne

    July 20, 2020 at 11:29 pm

    Visiting the whaling station sounds like a really unique experience. There’s a similar station open to the public with interactive exhibits in northern Newfoundland. As with Australia, there is thankfully no longer whaling but it was an important part of local life in the past.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 21, 2020 at 9:03 am

      It was a very interesting experience and thankfully the museum is now very much focused on information and conservation of whales.

  3. Linda (LD Holland)

    July 21, 2020 at 3:54 am

    I think it is important to visit places like this to understand the past and what life was like at the time. We toured similar spats when we visited the Azores Islands off Portugal. I was amazed at how many products are actually made from whales. I find the skeletons put the feat of whaling into perspective. While we may no longer support this activity, the people who earned their living at one time sure had an amazing feat to get these large animals.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 21, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Hi Linda, whaling was indeed a very hard trade and the men who did it had a lot of personal courage. I think the issue is with modern whaling, where technology overpowers the whales too easily, that’s why the numbers went down so much!

  4. Jane

    July 21, 2020 at 6:37 am

    I understand your hesitation about writing about a whaling station, but I agree completely that it is right to do so. This is history and from history we learn, how ever abhorrent the practice may have been. I think the fact that the museum does not glorify whaling in any way is important. This is a fascinating “attraction” in Albany and I would definitely make a point of visiting

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 21, 2020 at 8:59 am

      Thanks Jane, I guess it’s a bit like a war museum. The topic is dark but it’s important to learn about it and not to forget… The good thing at the Albany Historic Whaling Station is that there is a focus on conservation now, there is no glorification of the slaughter…

  5. Nic

    July 23, 2020 at 3:38 am

    I can understand why you might have had some reservations about visiting but I think that it’s important to but historical places and events within the context and time they happened. It’s a place that is intertwined with the history of the area and it’s an important part of learning about the town and also learning why we don’t still do this today. I think it would be fascinating but quite sad too.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 23, 2020 at 9:24 am

      It’s true that the place is closely linked to the local history. After all, generations of men worked in this industry, it was a livelihood. Now, there is a much stronger focus on the conservation of whales, so it’s a more positive purpose.

  6. Raksha

    August 1, 2020 at 10:55 am

    I have been to Albany only for a brief period of time. I have never been to the whaling station and this just got added to my list of places to visit. Thank you for this.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 1, 2020 at 11:16 am

      If you make it to Albany again, I really recommend visiting the Whaling Station, it’s very interesting… Of course there are other things to see in Albany.

  7. Vanessa Shields

    August 1, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    I’m so glad that whaling is banned but I do think it’s interesting to learn about its history and why they did it. It does seem that they used every part of the whale which is good I guess rather than just for sport. I’m happy that we can use other things for products instead of whales!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 1, 2020 at 4:03 pm

      Whaling is banned in most countries, but there are still a few places that continue this gruesome trade. If anything, this museum is now advocating for conservation of whales so this place should be talked about and visited!

  8. Emma

    August 1, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    I definitely don’t agree with whaling I’m the modern age with the understanding that it’s still an important practice to some cultures who use it to survive, not do it for the sake of it. That said I absolutely agree that we should learn of it and from it, isn’t that what museums all are? Learning about and learning from the past? Nicely written account of what to expect

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 1, 2020 at 4:01 pm

      Thanks Emma. I think a lot of people might be put off by the gruesome trade, and it’s true that some of the photos displayed are pretty horrible but there is no more bad smell hanging around. Today, it’s a really interesting visit and I got lucky with the beautiful weather!

  9. Bliss

    August 1, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    It’s always such an important question when visiting these places. I think it’s important to visit and acknowledge that this was in our past and continue to fight to make it illegal world wide.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 1, 2020 at 6:34 pm

      I agree with you, I think it’s important to remember that whaling was an important industry that procured essential products for a time. Also, it was a livelihood for many men living in Albany. Thankfully, the museum now has a strong focus on conservation, which makes it essential to this cause.

  10. Sharyn

    August 1, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    What an interesting place. It is definitely worth remembering the history of whaling. And standing looking at bones will definitely put how big these mighty whales are into perspective.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 2, 2020 at 9:11 am

      I agree with you, the whaling station is an important historical landmark in Albany and anything that raises the profile of conservation is worth celebrating

  11. katy

    August 1, 2020 at 7:25 pm

    Nice balanced article on a sensitive subject. The pictures are fascinating as well!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 2, 2020 at 9:12 am

      thanks Katy, I had really nice weather for my visit so I’m very happy with my photos.

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