Killer whales of Eden, Australia

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A killer whale swims alongside a whaling boat, with a smaller whale in between. Two men are standing, the harpooner in the bow and another manning the aft rudder, while four oarsmen are seated.
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 killer whales of Eden, Australia were a group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) known for their co-operation with human hunters of other whale 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.[1] The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay, and then alert the whalers to their presence and often help to kill the whales.

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 female (as is typical among killer whales),[1] probably the whale known as Stranger. 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.[1] In return for their help, the whalers allowed the killer whales to eat the tongue and lips of the whale before hauling it ashore, providing a rare example of mutualism between humans and killer whales.[1] The killer whales would then 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, Big Jack, Little Jack, Skinner and Montague.[2]

The unique behaviour of killer whales in the area was recorded in the 1840s by whaling overseer Sir Oswald Brierly in his extensive diaries.[3][4] It was recorded in numerous publications over the period[5][6] 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.[7]

In 2005, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary, Killers of Eden, based on the book of the same name.[2] 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. It seems likely that the origin of this co-operative relationship stems from the religious beliefs of the Nullica people, who formed a significant part of the whaling workforce.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d Toft, Klaus (Producer) (2007). Killers in Eden (DVD documentary). Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  ISBN R-105732-9.
  2. ^ a b c Danielle Clode (2002) Killers in Eden, Allen and Unwin ISBN 1-86508-652-5
  3. ^ Pritchard, G.R. “Econstruction: The Nature/Culture Opposition in Texts about Whales and Whaling.” Deakin University Ph.D. Thesis. 2004. Accessed 2009-06-21.
  4. ^ Oswald Brierly (1842-8) Diaries at Twofold Bay and Sydney, State Library of New South Wales, MLA503-541
  5. ^ H. S. Hawkins and R. H. Cook (1908) Whaling at Eden with some "killer" yarns, Lone Hand, 1 July, 3: 265-73
  6. ^ E. J. Brady, (1909) The law of the tongue: Whaling, by compact, at Twofold Bay, Australia Today, 1 December: 37-9
  7. ^ Tom Mead (1961) Killers of Eden, Angus and Robertson

Further reading[edit]

  • Clode, Danielle (October 2002). Killers of Eden: The Killer Whales of Twofold Bay. 

External links[edit]