South Africa // The Western Cape //

Whaling and gnashing of teeth

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For conservationists, the monumental 1970s eyesore of the Beacon Island Hotel, on a promontory on the southern side of the Piesang River mouth, may not be such a bad thing, since previously the island was the site of a whale-processing factory established in 1806 – one of some half-dozen such plants erected along the Western Cape coast that year. Whaling continued at Plettenberg Bay until 1916. Southern right whales were the favoured species, yielding more oil and whalebone – an essential component of Victorian corsets – than any other. In the nineteenth century, a southern right would net around three times as much as a humpback caught along the Western Cape coast, leading to a rapid decline in the southern right population by the middle of the nineteenth century.

The years between the establishment and the closing of the Plettenberg Bay factory saw worldwide whaling transformed by the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. In 1852, the explosive harpoon was introduced, followed by the use of steam-powered ships five years later, and the cannon-mounted harpoon in 1868. In 1913, Plettenberg Bay was the site of one of seventeen shore-based and about a dozen floating factories between West Africa and Mozambique, which that year between them took about ten thousand whales.

Inevitably, a rapid decline in humpback populations began; by 1918, all but four of the shore-based factories had closed due to lack of prey. The remaining whalers now turned their attention to fin and blue whales. When the South African fin whale population became depleted by the mid-1960s to twenty percent of its former size, they turned to sei and sperm whales. When these populations declined, the frustrated whalers started hunting minke whales, which at 9m in length are too small to be a viable catch. In 1979 the South African government banned all activity surrounding whaling.

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