THE WHALE THAT KILLED FOR MAN
One of the most remarkable yet bizarre partnerships between man and the wild came to an end on September 17, 1930, as the tide gently deposited the carcass of Old Tom, a killer whale, on to a beach in New South Wales.
Old Tom was thought to be the leader of a pod of killer whales or orcas which helped whalers by herding baleen whales into Twofold Bay.
Each winter, Tom and his companions had appeared off Twofold Bay and waited for their human allies-the whalers of the little township of Eden-to row out and join them. Then the hunt would begin. The killer pack would seek out their gigantic quarry and drive it into shallow water.
The killer whales worked with terrific skill. With the boats standing by, two killers seized the victim’s tail to stop any erratic movement, while two more swam beneath its head to prevent its escape by diving. The remainder of the pack would then close in, and hurl themselves out of the water in turn on to the creature’s sensitive blowhole. At last, stunned and breathless, the poor creature would roll on the surface, just in time for the whalers to plunge their lances.
But why would the killer whales help the whalers? That’s because in return, the whalers allowed the killer whales to eat the tongues and the lips of the hunted baleen whales, an agreement known as the “Law of the Tongue”. All the whalers had to do now was to wait for a few days, until the carcass rose to the surface, so that they could tow it ashore.
Old Tom showed an uncanny understanding of the whalers’ methods. Even when there were no boats at sea, the pack would surround a whale, then detach two or three of their number to raise the alarm in Eden by slapping the offshore waters with their flukes. Then, as the boats put to sea, the killers would guide them to the fray.
After Tom’s death, he was thought to have lived for over 80 years, but on examination of the remains, this estimate was reduced to about 35 years. This method of examination is now considered to be inaccurate for older animals. So it is possible that Tom lived longer. Following his death, the pack forsook Eden forever. IN any case, more sophisticated whaling methods replaced old rowing boats and hand-held harpoons, and the industry gradually died. But Tom is not forgotten. His skeleton is one of Eden Museum’s proudest exhibits.