Whaling Industry in Durban

Whaling off the KwaZulu-Natal coast – Compiled by Terry Hutson

The whaling industry in Durban had its beginnings 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 that year and brought two ships for catching whales to Durban from Sandefjord in Norway.

image-whale-diveHunting began in July the following year and ended in mid-November, by which time the two catchers had killed 106 of the huge animals, mostly Humpbacks.

The original whaling factory was within the harbour entrance, near where the whale slipway can still be found. This was a popular bathing area at the time but because sharks were now attracted to the whale carcases, and on account of the smell produced, the whaling factory was forced to move around the headland to the ocean side of the Bluff – KwaZulu-Natal.

Here a second factory was also planned, the Union Whaling & Fishing Company with Egeland and Abraham Larsen  as partners, but this had yet to start operations. In the 1909 hunting season the whale capture rose to 155 whales, yielding 1070 tons of oil, 12 tons of whalebone and 148 tons of boiled bone. The latter was sold locally; the rest exported to Europe. By 1910 the Union Whaling & Fishing Co was in operation with three catchers and in that year killed 233 whales.

In the following years other whaling companies opened, each with a factory on the seaward side of the Bluff. Most of these soon closed down or amalgamated – among the latter were two companies that formed the Premier Whaling Company, which was taken over by Lever Bros in 1914.

Among those that closed were the South African Whaling Co and the Union Whaling & Fishing Co, although a new Union Whaling Co (UWC) would reopen in 1921, again with Egeland and Larsen at the helm and employing locally-raised capital. UWC took over the original Union Whaling & Fishing Co station on the Bluff and after a slow start went on to become the surviving whaling company in Natal. In 1931 Lever Bros sold the Premier Whaling Company to Union Whaling at a heavy loss, and with the other companies having all shut by then, the Union Whaling Company continued as the sole occupant of the Natal whaling grounds, although it operated both factories right through until 1953 when it located all factory operations in the former Premier premises.

The remains of this factory are all that is evident today, and although in a dilapidated condition they are worthy of being made available as a memorial to the men and women of the whaling industry, and the whales themselves that once performed such an important role in the economy of Natal.

A special train was used to take the carcases around the headland to the respective whaling stations. This practice continued right until the end of operations in the 1970s. The whaling season off the KZN coast 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.

In the early years the majority of whales killed were Humpbacks but as the number of these migrating along the coast quickly diminished, other species including Sperm, Blue and Fin whales became important. By the 1930s the numbers of Blue whales were becoming less while Fin whales lasted until the 1960s. Attention then turned to hunting Sei whales but exploitation in the Antarctic was having a severe effect on the numbers of different species moving into warmer waters and by the end of whaling off the Natal coast in the 1970s the Sperm whale was the main target, with large numbers moving through the waters off the coast.

The end to whaling off the Natal coast came in 1975 and followed global pressure that led to calls for all whaling to be abandoned. Economic pressure increased when fuel oil prices skyrocketed in the early 1970s – whale catching ships burned between 8 and 16 tons of fuel oil a day, and whaling stations needed a lot of fuel to power steam winches and process carcasses.

Since the reduction of whaling in the Antarctic and the ending of whaling off the KZN coast, whale numbers have gradually increased, providing new interest and commercial opportunities involving tourism.  This has yet to be fully explored in KZN.

Acknowledgements: A Short History of Modern Whaling off Natal. R Gambell National Institute of Oceanography 1970.

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