Moreton Island is the most northerly and the largest island defining the outer perimeter of Moreton Bay. Others include the Stradbroke Islands, and a myriad of islands dotting the bay.
For millennia, the islands have been the home of indigenous Aborigines until the arrival of Europeans. There is some speculation that it was the Portuguese that made first contact with the area. Although no concrete evidence now exists as to the whereabouts of the wreck of the Portuguese galleon, early local maps marked a spot where such a ship was supposed to have founded in the early 1600s. Several sightings of the wreck have been recorded and there are stories of artefacts being removed. This wreck, if it had existed, was connected with North Stradbroke Island.
What we do know for certain is that Lt James Cook sailed past these islands in 1770 and gave the name to the most northerly of them. He named it Morton Island after James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Cartographers later misspelt the name by labelling the island Moreton.
Matthew Flinders followed in 1799 and, because of a confrontation with the local Aborigines on Bribie Island, named the place Skirmish Point.
John Oxley arrived in 1824 with convicts to set up a settlement at Redcliffe. The following year the settlement moved to a site inland on the Brisbane River. Moreton Bay as a place of incarceration continued until 1842 when the area was thrown open to free settlement. With that, migrants flooded into the area.
Quarantine stations were set up at Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island in 1850, followed by the occupation of St Helena Island in 1866. The St Helena facility was converted into a prison (1867-1933) and a new quarantine station was built at Peel Island with some overflow facilities on Bird Island. Peel Island was also designated a lazaret.
Moreton Bay also had its government institutions with the establishment of the Benevolent Asylum at Dunwich in 1864. This cared for many different kinds of disadvantaged residents and remained until 1946 when it was transferred to Eventide at Sandgate.
A whaling station was opened at Tangalooma in 1952 and remained active until 1962. Originally, whaling had been conducted in the southern mainland states and Tasmania where sperm whales and then Southern Right whales were killed for their whale oil baleen and meat.
The demand for whale oil increased significantly after WWII and the Australian Whaling commission was established in 1949 to co-ordinate the development of whaling, especially in Western Australia. This increase in whaling activity was supported by more efficient modes of killing whales and the changed focus to the targeting of humpback whales that annually migrated from the Antarctic up the east coast of Australia to breed in warmer tropical waters.
The Tangalooma Whaling Station was part of that re-establishment because of it close proximity to the whales’ migratory route. It had the added advantage that it was relatively close to Brisbane, Moreton Island was undeveloped, it was relatively protected from the prevailing south-easterly winds and a cheap lease was able to be arranged through the Queensland State Government. The parent company (Whale Products Pty Limited) was established in Sydney on 15th December 1950 for the purpose of carrying out whaling off the east coast of Australia. The company established a 12ha site just north of Tangalooma Point on Moreton Island.
The Tangalooma Whaling Station killed (the term used was usually harvested) a total of 6,277 Humpback whales during their bloody occupation of Moreton Island.
Whale Products P/L appointed an experienced Norwegian whaler, Captain Alf Melsom to manage the construction of the station. Work started in 1951. Three whale chasers were bought in Norway and sailed to Moreton Bay.
The original licence was for the taking of 500 whales per year and was valid for five years. The whaling season extended from 1st May to 31st October (6 months). Operations commenced at Tangalooma on 6th June 1952 and by 7th July, the whalers had killed 100 whales. With such abundance, quotas were gradually increased to 700 kills per year.
The whales were harpooned from one of the three chaser ships. The whales (initially large males) were shot with a 75kg exploding harpoon head. An 11kg grenade within the harpoon was set to explode four seconds after impact with the animal. The results were usually fatal if the harpoon were lodged near the backbone. Once the animal was dead, it was inflated with compressed air, fastened to the side of the chaser by its flukes and towed back to Tangalooma for flensing and processing.
Tangalooma was particularly successful in the early days of the operation and easily met its quotas. But after 1960 numbers began to diminish and by 1961 the quota was not met with only 591 whales killed and processed.
Trips to Tangalooma to observe the processing of the slaughtered whales were common in the 1950s. Here is part of a story from the Courier-Mail reported in 1955. Students from schools at Redcliffe had come to Tangalooma to witness the processing.
"Real life lessons for Clontarf and Humpybong State schools’ scholarship pupils who visited the Tangalooma whaling station and saw the 518th whale of the season arrive on the flensing deck. Mr Fred Summerhayes stood in the mouth of the 45ft (15m) mammal to explain treatment procedure to the children."
And this is what they saw. "… the flensing deck was covered with pieces of whale in more or less advanced stages of treatment – bare bones, pieces of flesh or intestines littered around or heaped together. The whole deck looked like a giant-sized butcher’s table – 50 yards long."
The resultant product was whale oil, (blubber boiled for 3-4 hours and the impurities removed in separators) then mainly shipped overseas and used for the manufacture of margarine; baleen (whale bone) for the fashion industry and whale meat meal, cooked dried and packaged at Tangalooma and used throughout Australia as a high protein food for livestock.
Because of diminishing numbers of humpback whales, the Tangalooma whaling station was no longer viable and closed on 5th August 1962. By this time, it was estimated that fewer than 500 humpbacks remained in the wild. The whaling of humpback whales in Australian waters was banned in 1963.
On 21st June 1963, the whaling station was sold to Brisbane interests who began the conversion of the site to a resort. Although primitive (the factory and the flensing decks were converted into a bar and lounge area), the resort opened in December 1963 mainly for a Brisbane clientele. The resort was sold in 1981 and a major program of upgrading began with the construction of new self-contained units, two swimming pools and squash and tennis courts.
The island, including the resort, is now serviced by two regular ferry services. One, run by the resort, brings holiday-makers and day-trippers and lands them on a wharf near the resort. The other is a large catamaran capable of carrying up to 52 cars in addition to holiday-makers, day-trippers, campers and beach fishermen. This vessel is simply parked on the beach to the north of the resort and just north of the Tangalooma wrecks that provide a natural aquarium fro swimmers and underwater adventurers.
The ferry is know as MICAT and is the latest operated by Moreton Island Ferries Pty Limited, owned and operated by the Hawkins family since 1970. They also run Hawkins Transport. The service started with Malahini, that was replaced by a larger vessel, Rigel Kent, which, in turn, was replaced by the locally built Moreton Venture I. In 1980, Moreton Venture 2, a revolutionary beach landing craft, replaced Venture I. A bigger, better and faster Moreton Venture was launched in 1986 and remained in service until 2004 when it was replaced with MICAT.
It was my plan to catch this ferry that leaves from near the new Port of Brisbane. It takes a little over an hour to land on the beach near the Tangalooma wrecks. When I asked how long it would take to walk along the beach to the resort, I was told about 20 minutes.
Don’t be fooled. It’s a bloody long way – more like a country 20 minutes – and you’re walking in soft sand. I made it but the thought of the return to MICAT was too much so I hitched a ride on an inflatable taking swimmers to explore the wrecks – just near where my ferry would land. For a negotiated fee, I hopped aboard and we sped across the still waters adjacent to the shore, over which I had just so painfully trudged.
I had to wait a while but it was worth the wait. When the ferry finally arrived (it had been delivering a tanker-load of diesel to the resort and picking up the rubbish for disposal on the mainland), I was allowed on board, chatted with the crew and was given an introduction to the Master who invited me onto the bridge for the return trip to Brisbane.
MICAT travels at around 16kts, is as smooth as silk, and provides plenty of refreshments for the generally weary travellers. What a fantastic day’s outing.
* Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.