Humpback Whales Then and Now

Last week I traveled from the US to Brisbane (Queensland) Australia to volunteer with the EarthWatch Institute research project with Humpbacks & Highrises.   The basecamp for the project was on North Stradbroke Island at the Moreton Bay Research Center, University of Queensland.    The research station’s location makes it ideal for field research and education purposes.

Moreton Bay Research Station and residential housing across the street, The University of Queensland

Upon arriving, we discovered that we would be surveying humpback whales in an area with a strong whaling history.   I remembered this as we spotted our first humpback whale (a mother and calf) in the Moreton Bay channel with Moreton Island in the distance.    The irony was not lost on me.   The research to help protect and understand the humpback whales is the same area that so many humpback whales were harvested in the 1900’s.

Most people are familiar with the tales of Moby Dick by Herman Melville and perhaps we all have visions of whaling with the wooden ships and harpoons from the 1800’s, but whaling has been around for 1,000 of years and was an active industry until the late 1900’s.   The blubber (oil) and baleen (referred to as whale bone) have been valuable commodities in the more recent centuries.   Even in America the original colonies relied on whale oil for lamps.

Land Based Whale Station on Moreton Island Australia. Photo from Tangalooma Island Resort website.   Read more about the history of Moreton Island.

After World War II there was a high demand for whale oil.   Australia and New Zealand were perfectly situated to harvest humpback whales because the whales travel between their feeding grounds in the Antarctica to the warmer waters in the north to give birth to their calves.   They still use the same migration paths today.

Whale Migration chart provided by

Part of the reason for the close of the industry by 1970 was fossil fuels had replaced the demand for whale oil.    But also the whale numbers were drastically diminished by this time.   In 1970, the United States banned whaling and added many species to the endangered species list.    The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which was set up in 1946, finally called for a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1982.     Although, Norway and Japan continue whaling today.

The land based whale station on Moreton Island processed over 6,000 whales from 1952 to 1962.    Before whaling the Eastern Australian population was estimated between 10,000 to 15,000 and by the time Australia finally banned whaling in 1963 the population estimate had dropped to around 500.   Today this area is the Tangalooma Island Resort..

As we discovered the profit in hunting whales, did we forget about our traditional reverence, mythology, and even fear of the giant leviathans of the sea?   So many stories and references in our history– Jonah and the whale in the bible, the tales of Pinocchio and the whale, and whale totems used by Indian tribes.    Many tribes and cultures have believed in the spirit and wisdom of the whales and even that they may carry their ancestors with them.

Today we are still profiting from the whales through the tourism industry.    Hopefully we will be able to do this in a way in which both humans and whales can co-exist.    I will tell you, standing on the deck of the boat with a humpback whale breaching just meters away will never fail to take my breath away.     I agree with the reference of humpback whales as the gentle giants of the sea.


See Resources for more information:

History of Whaling, Department of Environment and Energy Australian Government

National Geographic Big Fish:  Brief History of Whaling

Whale Facts-History of Whaling

Most Humpback Whales Off Endangered List

Flansing Deck Tangalooma Whale Station 1960 .png

More Photos of Flensing deck, Tangalooma whaling station, 1960

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