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On the South Coast of NSW near the port of Eden, shore-based whale hunting, was a thriving industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Whalers hunted baleen whales (mostly humpback and southern right whales) for their blubber and bones as well as their baleen which was used in the manufacture of women’s clothes.

A group of killer whales in this area was known for its cooperation with human whalers in hunting other species. The killer whales’ partnership with humans lasted from the 1840s until 1930.

The killer whale pod included a large male with a distinctive dorsal fin called Old Tom, who was known for his unique character and for being regularly sighted. The killer whale pod would intercept baleen whales on their migration journey and then, working as a team, would shepherd them into Twofold Bay.

Killer Whale - Eden Killer Whale Collection Credit: Eden Killer Whale Museum collection

Once the whale was contained within the bay, the orcas would alert the whalers by breaching or tail slapping at the mouth of the Kiah River, just outside the whalers’ cottages.

Whalers then launched their wooden hulled rowing boats and rowed to where Old Tom and his pod held the whale entrapped. It was once believed that the killer whales sometimes grabbed the ropes that attached the harpoon to the boat in their teeth and helped to haul the dead baleen whale to shore. It is now understood that Old Tom took ropes in his mouth or under his pectoral flipper but this usually occured mid hunt, or taking poor unaware fisherman for a tow. It’s unclear whether the wear in the tooth is from rope wear or natural processes. Viistors can see the teeth and skeleton of Old Tom, which is on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum.

Fishermen and Orca - Eden Killer Whale museum collection Credit: Eden Killer Whale Museum collection

The baleen whale was left overnight for the killer whales to take their share of tongues, lips and throat. This was an integral part of the working partnership between orca and human. The whalers would return the next day to tow the carcass back to the whaling station once the decomposition gases had raised it to the surface again.

Many of the Eden killer whales were individually named. There was Old Tom, Hooky, Humpy (died 1927), Cooper, Typee (died 1901), Jackson, Stranger, Big Ben, Young Ben, Kinscher, Jimmy, Sharkey, Charlie Adgery, Brierly, Albert, Youngster, Walker, Big Jack, Little Jack, Skinner and Montague. Further information about the pods can be found here at the Eden Killer Whale Museum.

Sepia postcard from Eden killer whale museum Credit: Postcard, Eden Killer Whale Museum Collection.

By 1930, shore-based and offshore whaling had reduced humpback stocks significantly. This may have resulted in a reduction in the number of orcas in Old Tom’s group. On 17th September 1930 the old whale returned to its favoured hunting area to die. Upon finding the body of Old Tom in the water, local whalers decided to preserve the skeleton.

The killer whale-human partnership lasted for almost 90 years. It is a unique example of whales and humans working together.