Ancient aboriginal whale carvings on the rocky headlands of Sydney have long perplexed visitors. The carvings reveal images of fish, kangaroos and people, as well as geometric patterns. No-one is really certain what the images mean as the early settlement of Sydney disrupted Aboriginal tribal life and oral history records before they could be documented.
While several of the carvings depict whales, and possibly feasting on stranded whales, some of the other whale images are more mysterious and include large dorsal fins and distinctive peg-like teeth. I can’t help but wonder if these images may actually be killer whales which drove their larger cousins ashore to their deaths.
I discovered the importance of the relationship between some Aboriginal communities and killer whales when researching my book, Killers in Eden (published by Museum Victoria). Killers in Eden explores the remarkable hunting partnership between killer whales and human whalers in Twofold Bay, New South Wales, between the early 1800s and 1930.
During this time killer whales would herd baleen whales, including humpbacks, right whales and even blue whales, into Twofold Bay. They then swam into the whaling station and call the whalers out to the hunt by ‘floptailing’ or breaching, crashing down on the water’s surface.
After leading the whalers out to their quarry, the killer whales would continue to harry and hound the whale, preventing it from diving or swimming out to sea, and allowing the whalers to harpoon and lance the whale. The whalers would then leave the carcass for the killer whales to feed on before retrieving it the next day to boil down for oil.
This remarkable story of human and killer whale co-operation almost seems too strange to be true. After all, killer whales, and whalers, occurred all over the world’s oceans in the late 19th century. Why was it that this unique co-operative partnership developed only in south-eastern Australia, but nowhere else in the world? The answer it seems, lies with the customs and beliefs of the local Aboriginal Nullica tribe, who were the stalwarts of Twofold Bay whaling for many years.
Long before Europeans arrived in Twofold Bay, killer whales had been intentionally hunting large baleen whales by driving them into shallow water.
Killer whales eat a wide range of food, but particular groups specialise in particular prey – some eat salmon or herring, while others eat seals or stingrays. But some families are specialised whale hunters and they often drive their much larger cousins into shallow water to hunt them. This natural behaviour often resulted in an unexpected feast for local tribes.
In 1904 retired surveyor and dedicated amateur anthropologist, Robert Mathews, reported that, “When the natives observe a whale ‘m rirra,’ near the coast, pursued by ‘killers’, mánanna, one of the old men goes and lights fires at some little distance apart along the shore, to attract the attentions of the ‘killers’.
“He then walks along from one fire to another, pretending to be lame and helpless, leaning upon a stick in each hand. This is supposed to excite the compassion of the ‘killers’ and induce them to chase the whale towards that part of the shore in order to give the poor old man some food.”
When Europeans began whaling in Twofold Bay, they often employed Aboriginal crews. These men saw the killer whales as allies rather than competitors in the hunt.
Early whaling station manager, Oswald Brierly, noted that the Aborigines “regard these killers as the reincarnate spirits of their own departed ancestors … they go so far as to particularise and identify certain individual killer spirits.”
While early white whalers tried to chase the killer whales away from a whale carcass, Aboriginal crews often left the killer whales to feast on its choice parts – the tongue and lips – before retrieving the bloated remains a few days later. It took only a few seasons for the quick-witted and intelligent killer whales to take full advantage of this beneficial arrangement. The killer whales corralled the baleen whales into Twofold Bay then sought the help of their human friends.
“The killers would let them know if there were whales about. Ole Uncle would speak to them killers in the language,” said Percy Mumbulla, whose uncle was a whaler. The killer whales lead the whalers to their quarry and kept the baleen whale under constant attack until it was harpooned and lanced.
The benefits of co-operating with the killer whales was soon picked up by the European whalers and allowed shore-based whaling to remain economic long after the industry had collapsed elsewhere. The story of this small but remarkable whaling station reveals an insight into the relationship between south coast Aborigines and killer whales which might otherwise have been entirely lost.
The mysterious ‘killer whale’ carvings of Sydney suggest that this now rare visitor to our shores may once have played an important role in Aboriginal culture, not just in Twofold Bay, but along the south-eastern seaboard.
* Danielle Clode is a well-known science writer, natural-historian and Rhodes Scholar at Flinders University. She is author of six non-fiction titles, including Voyages to the South Seas, Prehistoric Giants and most recently A future in Flames, the sum of which make a rich contribution to the fabric of Australian science and history.