Once Australia’s last-operating whaling station, Whale World in Albany has now closed and is a whaling museum that is especially popular among tourists.
Long before European settlement, opportunist whaling ships used the southwest coast of Australia as an untapped source of wealth, and this continued in Albany until 1978, when a combination of strict anti-whaling regulations and the fact that no-one wanted whale oil any more forced the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company at Frenchman’s Bay to shut down. The site is now Whale World, and with a bit of imagination you can return to a time when the area would absolutely stink of rotting blubber, and getting up close and personal with the monsters was a daily occurrence.
A word of warning here: Whale World is one of those places that has clearly become someone’s pet worthy project. It has quite obviously had squillions of government grant and tourist commission handout dollars thrown at it in an attempt to turn it into a major tourist drawcard. That – despite the many flashing signs, atmospheric voice-overs and clever video display boards – it will never be. If you’re interested in the history, want to know more about whales or simply fancy going along for the ride, it’s very good and well worth checking out if you’re in the area; no-one in their right mind, however, would travel to the region just for Whale World. As for children, well – let’s just say that unless they’re inquisitive types or are overly keen on hearing about gore (which, to be fair, is a lot of them), there will be plenty of calls to go and get an ice cream.
The 30-minute tour of the old whaling station doesn’t start too auspiciously. We’re taken to the converted boiler room, which now houses the engine that once powered a Cheynes vessel. Falling into the trap of assuming that whatever has had the most money spent on it is the most impressive, our guide stands and gawps in awe for what feels like four days. The pistons pump. And pump. And pump. Around this not too impressive display of steam power, shoes are gazed at, watches consulted and heads scratched. Finally we’re shaken out of our daze and taken outside, where it starts to get much more entertaining. Dusty old equipment is brought to life with tales of sperm whales being heaved up ramps and “flensed” of their blubber while gunmen in boats shoot at scavenging sharks circling the area trying to feed on the captured whales. You certainly didn’t want to slip overboard on those ships, that’s for sure. In fact, just about every part of the job comes across as being either seriously dangerous, seriously unpleasant, or both. If you’re not falling out of boats in shark-infested waters or accidentally cutting your arm off with huge flensing knives, you’re being crushed by giant carcasses or enduring the rancid smell of oil soaked into floorboards.
Inside, we’re taken to some seriously big machinery where the whales were effectively cooked, aided by audio simulations of what it would have sounded like working there. It’s undeniably, if almost excessively, well done – like a Phil Spector-produced record, hitting you with a wall of sound when a bit of stripped back minimalism may have been more effective. At the end of the tour comes both the most interactive and child-friendly aspect: three oil tanks have been converted into multi-media theatres. After you’ve donned those ever-so-stylish 3D glasses, whales come swimming towards you in a way that those not holding marine biology degrees from Tokyo University and harpoons will never be able to experience in the wild.
Frenchman Bay Road
Albany, Western Australia.
Phone: (08) 9844 4021
Entry fee: $18 adults, $14 children/concessions.