It is always a magnificent story when animals work alongside humans to achieve a common goal. In this case, a group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) known as the Killer Whales of Eden, co-operated with hunters to prey on cetacean species near the port of Eden in southeastern Australia. All parties involved mutually benefited from this most fascinating dual-hunting strategy partnership which lasted close to 80 years during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At the time, the whalers hunted baleen whales, which are whales named after their feeding apparatus: baleens. Baleen consists of a series of plates made from keratin, which is the same substance that makes up human fingernails. These baleens hang from the rood of the mouth and are used to filter plankton, krill, and other schooling fish. Baleen whales include whales such as rorquals, gray whales, and pygmy right whales which can grow up to 34 meters in length. These whales were mostly targeted for their blubber, bones, and baleen, which was specifically utilized to manufacture clothes for women.
The famous pod of killer whales included a distinctive member, a large male possessing a unique dorsal fin called Old Tom, who was known for his quirky character and regular sightings. This group of whales would intercept whales on their migration journey and then, working together, would corral them into Twofold Bay. Once the victim baleen whale was contained within the bay, a member of the group, usually Old Tom, would alert the whales by breaching of tail slapping at the mouth of the Kiah River, just outside the hunter’s homes. This action led the hunters to believe that Old Tom was the “leader of the pack”, however among killer whales such a role was more likely to be taken by a female.
The whalers would then launch their wood row boats to where Old Tom and his pod held the entrapped whale. It is believed that after the harpooning phase, the whales would grab the harpoon ropes which extended from the speared whale to the boat and would help haul the dead baleen whale to shore. Old Tom was famous for taking the ropes in his mouth or under his pectoral flipper.
Visitors are still able to view the teeth and the skeleton of Old Tom on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum. There are significant wear marks on the teeth from repeatedly grabbing fast-moving ropes.
In exchange for their help, the whalers would anchor the carcass overnight. Meanwhile the killer whales would eat the tongue, throat, and lips of the whale before the whalers would haul it to shore. They would also feed on the many fish and birds that would show up to scavenge small scraps and fishing runoff. This arrangement was dubbed the “law of the tongue” and was a fundamental piece of the partnership between man and orca.
Unfortunately, as with all things in life, everything seemingly comes to an end. In 1923, a third-generation whaler named George Davidson, and a retired pastor John Logan went fishing on a motorized yacht. During the trip, Old Tom had forced a small whale to the surface which initiated Davidson to harpoon it. There was a severe thunderstorm approaching and Davidson wanted to hastily get off the water and attempted to bring the carcass to shore without fulfilling his part of the arrangement. Old Tom grabbed the tow rope and ended up losing some teeth in the struggle. It is documented that Logan was deeply apologetic and resentful for what had happened.
Old Tom’s corpse washed ashore in 1930, and it was noticed the mouth had abscesses from missing teeth which implied he could have died from starvation. His death was reported in the 18 September 1930 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald as “King of the Killers”. By this time, shore-base and offshore drilling had significantly reduced the number of baleen whales which could have resulted in the reduction of orcas in the area. This killer partnership lasted for almost a century and is a unique example of fish and humans working together.