kids encyclopedia robot

Killer whales of Eden, New South Wales facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts


Killer Whale (Old Tom) and whalers
The killer whale known as Old Tom swims alongside a whaling boat, flanking a whale calf. The boat is being towed by a harpooned whale (not visible here).

The killers of Eden or Twofold Bay killers were a group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) known for their co-operation with human hunters of cetacean species. They were seen near the port of Eden in southeastern Australia between 1840 and 1930. A pod of killer whales, which included amongst its members a distinctive male called Old Tom, would assist whalers in hunting baleen whales. The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay or neighbouring regions of coast, and then often swim many kilometres away from the location of the hunt to alert the whalers at their cottage to their presence and often help to kill the whales.

Indigenous Australians

The local indigenous people, the Yuin tribe, believed the killer whales to be their totem animal and reincarnations of their ancestors. Yuin elder Guboo Ted Thomas heard stories of his grandfather riding on the backs of killer whales. Thomas and his daughter Lynne describe Yuin cooperating with dolphins (cetaceans, like killer whales) to drive fish to shore where they could be speared. Local historian Barry Smith speculates that the black-and-white ceremonial dress of Koori warriors is based on the killer whale.

Documentarian Greg McKee has been told by Yuin elders that Aboriginal Australians had a spiritual association with whales effectively dating back to the last ice age. Long ago their ancestors used to hunt game in areas of dry land presently covered by sea. These ancestors took on the form of killerwhales and so continue to hunt in their traditional hunting grounds. The references to dry land now covered by sea suggests the last ice ages when the sea level was lower than present around 10,000+yrs ago.

Davidson whalers and "the law of the tongue"

Old Tom's role was commonly to alert the human whalers to the presence of a baleen whale in the bay by breaching or tailslapping at the mouth of the Kiah River, which is one of the smallest rivers, where the Davidson family had their tiny cottages. This role endeared him to the whalers and led to the idea that he was “leader of the pack,” although such a role was more likely taken by a little known female (as is typical among killer whales). The whale known as "Stranger" described as a leader of "stranger's mob" was a large 30 ft male.

After the harpooning, some of the killer whales would even grab the ropes in their teeth and aid the whalers in hauling. The skeleton of Old Tom is on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, and significant wear marks still exist on his teeth from repeatedly grabbing fast-moving ropes.

In return for their help, the whalers would anchor the carcass overnight while the killer whales ate the tongue and lips of the whale, then haul it ashore. The arrangement is a rare example of mutualism between humans and killer whales. The arrangement was called "the law of the tongue". The killer whales would also feed on the many fish and birds that would show up to pick at the smaller scraps and runoff from the fishing.

Many of the Eden killer whales were individually known and named, often after whalers who had died. Some of best known killer whales included Tom (who died 15 September 1930), Hooky, Humpy (died 1926/7), Cooper, Typee (died 1901), Jackson, Stranger, Big Ben, Young Ben, Kinscher (female), Jimmy, Sharkey, Charlie Adgery, Brierly, Albert, Youngster, Walker, Flukey, Big Jack, Little Jack, Skinner, Montague.

End of whaling arrangement

Around the mid 1920s, retired pastoralist John Logan, his young daughter Margaret and third-generation whaler George Davidson were aboard White Heather, Logan's motorised yacht after a whale chase. The Logans were the Davidsons' closest neighbours and the White Heather was often used to tow whales and whaleboats back to the whaling station after a kill. Old Tom had earlier forced a small whale to the surface, where Davidson's crew had harpooned it. Because he believed the buoyed carcass would be lost to an approaching storm, Logan attempted to bring the carcass ashore without Old Tom eating the tongue and lips. Old Tom apparently grabbed the tow rope in his mouth and lost some teeth in the struggle, with Brooks recounting that Logan said "Oh God, what have I done?" when he realised that Old Tom had lost teeth.

When Old Tom's corpse washed ashore in 1930, the mouth had abscesses from missing teeth and he may have died of starvation. His death was reported in the 18 September 1930 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald as "King of the Killers".

Killer whales became less common in the area after Old Tom died. One theory is that the rest of the pod was killed by Norwegian whalers in Jervis Bay rather than being related to Old Tom's death.

Logan provided the premises for the Eden Killer Whale Museum, which still has Old Tom's skeleton, "partly out of guilt".

Three killer whale pods were observed during one week in 2010—roughly on the 80th anniversary of Old Tom's death.

Documentation of the phenomenon

The unique behaviour of killer whales in the area was recorded in the 1840s by whaling overseer Sir Oswald Brierly in his extensive diaries. It was recorded in numerous publications over the period and witnesses included Australian members of Parliament. The behaviour was recorded on movie film in 1910 by C.B. Jenkins and C.E. Wellings and publicly projected in Sydney, although the film is now missing and believed to have been destroyed/damaged in the 1930s when bank vaults in Sydney, where they were kept, were flooded.

The story of the Davidson family and the killer whales was dramatised by Tom Mead in the book Killers of Eden.

In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary, Killers in Eden, based on a book of the same name. The documentary featured numerous period photographs taken by C.E. Wellings and W.T. Hall of the phenomenon and also featured interviews with elderly eyewitnesses.

While co-operative hunting between humans and wild cetaceans exists in other parts of the world, the relationship between whalers and killer whales in Eden appears to be unique, despite the widespread co-occurrence of whalers and killer whales elsewhere.

  • [ Killers in Eden documentary on Vimeo
  • [Compilation of Eyewitness Interview material on Youtube
kids search engine
Killer whales of Eden, New South Wales Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.