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Byron Shire
August 14, 2022

When Byron Bay was a whaling town

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Whale activist Dean Jefferys, then just over a year old, sees the result of whaling at Byron Bay in June 1959. Image from migaloo2.com
Whale activist Dean Jefferys, then just over a year old, sees the result of whaling at Byron Bay in June 1959. Image from migaloo2.com

Mary Gardner

‘I saw my first whale this season. They’re early,’ the man says, with a thrill in his voice. The noise of the crowd at the gig drowns out his other words. Suddenly, I fall into a small time warp. Everything goes quiet and I hear again the voice of another, older man.

‘I grew up on a dairy farm on a ridge between Byron and Lennox. We always knew when there was a whale in the Bay. We heard the boom from the harpoon. When they shot one, it echoed all around.’

Photos from the 1950s show crowds of bystanders watching whales hauled up on the jetty. Like now, going to Byron to see whales was a popular outing. Another man tells me of his first visit to Byron back then. He was a child, maybe seven years old.  As he walks up to the body, which was over ten and a half metres long, he sees a man working.

‘He was cutting something. Maybe it was an artery or near the heart. But suddenly blood sprays all over me,’ he says.

Now, years later, the grown man shrugs. He moves the conversation on to another topic.

I read old newspaper clippings and memoirs about whaling in Byron from 1954 to 1962. The fishing fleet had just been devastated by the 1954 cyclone. Whaling employed 60 men.

I stretch my senses and imagine. The noise on the jetty from the crane and the chains. The shouting. The tonnes of dead weight slowly hauled up from the water where large sharks snapped at any part they could still reach. The smell up-close and throughout the town. The heat of the body, which needed to be processed quickly before it began to cook itself.

The men working 12-hour shifts six days a week. They had to be quick and precise. Mistakes would hurt a mate or cost money. Hauling, flensing, boiling down the blubber for oil. Some meat went to families or to the butcher shop. The rest was processed largely for agricultural use.

Out at sea, the crew of the Byron I had to look sharp too. Their ship was run on diesel and their harpoon used explosives. Although mechanised, the work at sea was still hazardous. Shifts went round the clock. There was a quota to meet.

In eight years, 1,046 whales were killed. The Byron work stopped because there was hardly a whale to be found.  Of course, they weren’t the only whalers in the South Pacific in those days. But by 1978, culture changed. Most whaling nations, including Australia, signed international treaties and gave up the hunt.

And the whalemen themselves? One of these veterans of our war with nature was Harry Robertson, who died in 1995. Born a Scot in 1923, an Australian from 1952, he was a ship engineer and worked in the whaling industries of Norway and Australia. He had a natural ear for music. Using the traditional folk style, he sang his own songs of the working life of seamen from Queensland to Antarctica. He helped start the Maleny and Woodford festivals. True as other folk songs about battles, his songs hurt, even as the tune sweeps you along:

The harpoon and the line fly true – bedding deep into the whale,
And she split the timbers of the ship, with a flurry of her tail,
The rigging struts were snapped in two, we reeled beneath the blow…

Heigh-ho ye trawler men come on, forget the snapper and the prawn,
And it’s out of Ballina we’ll sail, a-fishing for the Humpback whale.


For more info about Harry Robertson see his website: www.harryrobertson.net.

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  1. Dear Ed, I lived in Lismore until age 8-9 and would take family holidays to a house in Brunswick. While doing a Byron beach outing one day we came across a huge gathering, a group around the whale tracks, and to our horror the last of the winching was tied off, huge ladders, 3 I think, cast along each side, and men swinging with all their might large axes carving pieces the size of hewn tree trunks or sides of beef. The smell was unlike any I had ever experienced, and tears poured down my face as they do while I write this. That was ’60ish and I left here 2 years later. Returning to live permanently in ’95 I helped set up the Centre at the lighthouse. Memories. I am an Enviro Scientist & try to encourage awareness of vulnerability whenever I can. We all should.

    • Hi Cherie,
      I am currently doing a University assignment about the whaling in Byron. I would love to hear your perspective so that I can include it into the document.

    • Hi Cherie,

      WOW! That is amazing that you were able to see it for yourself. I’m also doing a universityy assignment on whaling in Byron and would be so grateful to hear your perspective to include it into my work if you are comfortable with me doing so!

  2. Hi Mary,

    I am a radio producer with nationally distributed community program All the Best. I was very curious and moved by your story, and would love to talk some more about you memories of Byron as a whaling town for an upcoming episode.

    If anyone else has similar memories, please get in touch at ep (at) allthebestradio.com

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I bought my Fernvale property off Harry Robertson in 1979. He was a very colourful & deep man. I heard his music. He knew a lot about many things. thanks for the article

      • Do you have any photos of the whaling operation in Byron Bay. We have recorded Harry Robertson’s song the Ballina Whalers and are looking for images for a video clip

  4. For readers and those replying above: if you can contribute more info stories about whales, other large marine animals (turtles, dugongs, sharks, dolphins, seabirds and “game” fish) and if you have North Coast fish tales — please email me in the first instance mgardner{at}mgardner.info

  5. I can remember during the 50’s mum and dad going to Byron fishing on weekends and holidays. I can remember times. Dad catching so much that he couldn’t give them away because fish were that plentiful . So we went home to Tenterfield to give them to friends and family so they wouldn’t be wasted, couldn’t do that now.I remember dad walking the beach for pippies.I can still remember that god aweful smell of dead whales and of death and I can’t forget it, it’s like the smell has been etched itself into my memory. Seems funny that one can remember that smell so many years later. I felt sad even as a young boy for those whales, but the town relied on them for it’s survival it takes me back to a much simpler time. I remember the jetty being pretty much detroyed and mum dad and many others fishing off the jetty till demise.

  6. I had no idea about the whaling history of Byron Bay and Ballina until I recently heard the Nic Jones song “The Humpback Whale” (which is a version of Harry Robertson’s “Ballina Whalers”.)


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