Wednesday marks 84 years since the end of one of the most unique relationships in world history, between two of the most intelligent species on Earth.
The body of Old Tom, the last of the ‘Killers of Eden’, a pod of killer whales who worked side-by-side with human whalers, was found in Twofold Bay on September 17, 1930.
Today, 84 years on, his skeleton is preserved in the Eden Killer Whale Museum, and remains one of the town’s biggest drawcards.
Fittingly, local tourism operators will visit the museum on Wednesday for a screening of ‘This Eden’, the museum’s new DVD showcasing Eden’s vast history, which is largely centred on whaling.
“Old Tom is special because he represents the last of that era,” museum historian and tour guide Barry Smith said.
“His death was the end of an incredible partnership that developed over a period of around 8-10,000 years, dating back to the end of the last ice age.
“Killer whales are very intelligent creatures, and they’d perfected this method of hunting other whales where they would drive them onto the shore and eat there.
“Because the killers only ate the lips and the tongue [of their pray], they found it easier than eating at sea.”
It was through this that the unique bond between human and whale was formed in Twofold Bay.
The local Koori tribe had interpreted this hunting method differently, believing the orcas were bringing them food.
“They thought the killers were reincarnated warriors of the tribe – they were black with white markings, and the Kooris, in ceremonial dress, were also black with white markings,” Barry said.
“A killer whale’s lifespan is around the same as ours, so if this went on for around 10,000 years, that’s about 500 generations.
“The Kooris saw these same killer whales every year, and that only reinforced this belief.
“Putting the blood and guts of whaling aside, it’s a beautiful relationship.
“Imagine if you or I had a puppy dog for 50 years, how close you’d become; that’s what it must have been like for them.”
European settlers didn’t begin whaling in Twofold Bay until 1828, when Thomas Raine took up the trade.
Many others followed, but the relationship between the killers and the Europeans was uneasy, as several crews were reluctant to share their catch.
Of all the settlers, it was the Davidson family who earned the respect of the orcas in the 1840s, by honouring the traditional ‘Law of the Tongue’ and employing Kooris as members of their boat crews.
Any time the killers had helped them hunt a whale, they would tie its carcass to a buoy overnight and allow the killers to take their share before towing it to shore, where they would harvest the blubber and whalebone.
While the leader of the pack was traditionally the eldest female, dissipating numbers eventually saw Old Tom come to the fore in the early 20th century.
A 22ft long, six-tonne killer whale, Old Tom would travel to the Kiah Rivermouth, within view of the Davidson Whaling Station, and lash the water with his tail to alert the whalers when the pod had cornered their pray.
“He was highly extroverted, Old Tom, and by that time, the press were starting to take an interest in this unique method of whaling,” Barry said.
“Naturally, Old Tom stood out.
“The pod began to lose numbers in the early 20th century as industrial whaling gathered momentum and things like exploding harpoons came in.
“In about 20 years, they were nearly all wiped out, and I think there are a few possible reasons for that.
“Industrial whaling was happening further up the east coast, and we think the whalers were shooting the killer whales because they thought they would steal their catch.
“Another reason I would propose for it is that it was around the same time the Koori people were taken off their land and sent to missions.”
With the local whaling industry in decline, JR Logan, a retired pastoralist who lived next door to the Davidsons, made a fateful decision.
Out fishing with his youngest daughter Margaret and third-generation whaler George Davidson in around 1923, they happened upon Old Tom, who had captured a minke whale.
“It wasn’t a whaling day, but George had his harpoon with him and when Old Tom brought this whale in, he harpooned it,” Barry said.
“But JR looked up over South Head and saw a storm coming, and he said, 'George, it’s been a poor season, this might be the last whale you get’.”
Despite Davidson’s protests and reminders about the ‘Law of the Tongue’, Logan attempted to tow the dead whale to shore, sparking a tug-of-war with Old Tom, who was holding onto the tow rope.
In the course of the struggle, the leader of the orcas lost a few teeth, and Logan immediately regretted the incident.
“He threw his hands over his face and said ‘Oh God, what have I done?’,” Barry said.
“He was a former military vet, so he knew what problems it would cause for Old Tom.
“Sure enough, he died seven years later.
“He was the only one left by the end, and he was basically skin and bones when he returned in 1930.
“It was only George feeding him that kept him alive for that long; he died of starvation.”
Realising his mistake, Logan and the Twofold Bay Development League decided to build a museum in honour of the ‘Killers of Eden’, preserving Old Tom’s skeleton to make it the showpiece attraction.
While many more industries have come and gone around it, the Eden Killer Whale Museum has stood strong for over 80 years, and 50,000 visitors per year still walk through its doors.
As the local tourism industry continues to grow, that number is only expected to grow.
One part of Eden’s riveting history may have ended 84 years ago, but a chapter that continues to this very day was just beginning.
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