Killer whales of Eden, New South Wales

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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 killers of Eden or Twofold Bay killers[1] 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.[2] 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.

Indigenous Australians[edit]

The local indigenous people, the Yuin tribe, believed the killer whales to be their totem animal and reincarnations of their ancestors.[1][2] 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.[1] Local historian Barry Smith speculates that the black-and-white ceremonial dress of Koori warriors is based on the killer whale.[1]

Documentarian Greg McKee believes that Aboriginal Australians cooperated with whales for at least 10,000 years.[3]

Davidson whalers and "the law of the tongue"[edit]

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),[2] 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.[2]

In return for their help, the whalers would anchor the carcass overnight[4] or leave it hitched to the boat[5] while the killer whales ate the tongue and lips of the whale, then haul it ashore.[2][3] The arrangement is a rare example of mutualism between humans and killer whales.[2] The arrangement was called "the law of the tongue".[3] 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, Big Jack, Little Jack, Skinner, Montague and Nathan Kennedy.[6]

End of whaling arrangement[edit]

In around 1923, retired pastoralist John Logan and third-generation whaler George Davidson went fishing on White Heather, Logan's motorised yacht, with Logan's daughter Margaret Brooks.[1] Old Tom forced a small whale to the surface, where Davidson harpooned it.[1] Because he wanted to get off the water before a storm arrived, Logan attempted to bring the carcass ashore without Old Tom eating the tongue and lips.[5] Old Tom apparently grabbed the tow rope in his mouth and lost some teeth in the struggle,[3] with Brooks recounting that Logan said "Oh God, what have I done?" when he realised that Old Tom had lost teeth.[1]

When Old Tom's corpse washed ashore in 1930, the mouth had abscesses from missing teeth and he may have died of starvation.[1][3][5] His death was reported in the 18 September 1930 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald as "King of the Killers".[1]

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.[5]

Logan provided the premises for the Eden Killer Whale Museum, which still has Old Tom's skeleton, "partly out of guilt".[1][5]

Three killer whale pods were observed in one week in 2010 - roughly on the 80th anniversary of Old Tom's death.[3]

Documentation of the phenomenon[edit]

The unique behaviour of killer whales in the area was recorded in the 1840s by whaling overseer Sir Oswald Brierly in his extensive diaries.[7][8] It was recorded in numerous publications over the period[9][10] 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.[11]

In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary, Killers in Eden,[12] based on a book of the same name.[6] 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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The king of the killers". The Sydney Morning Herald. 16 September 2010. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Toft, Klaus (Producer) (2007). Killers in Eden (DVD documentary). Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 12 August 2009. ISBN R-105732-9.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Killer whales in Eden on anniversary of Old Tom's death". 17 September 2010. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  4. ^ "The Aboriginal whalers of Eden". ABC South East NSW. 29 October 2013. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e Crew, Bec. "The Legend of Old Tom and the Gruesome "Law of the Tongue"". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  6. ^ a b Danielle Clode (2002) Killers in Eden, Allen and Unwin ISBN 1-86508-652-5
  7. ^ Pritchard, G.R. “Econstruction: The Nature/Culture Opposition in Texts about Whales and Whaling.” Deakin University Ph.D. Thesis. 2004. Accessed 2009-06-21.
  8. ^ Oswald Brierly (1842-8) Diaries at Twofold Bay and Sydney, State Library of New South Wales, MLA503-541
  9. ^ H. S. Hawkins and R. H. Cook (1908) Whaling at Eden with some "killer" yarns, Lone Hand, 1 July, 3: 265-73
  10. ^ E. J. Brady, (1909) The law of the tongue: Whaling, by compact, at Twofold Bay, Australia Today, 1 December: 37-9
  11. ^ Tom Mead (1961) Killers of Eden, Angus and Robertson
  12. ^ YouTube, Killers in Eden

Further reading[edit]

  • Clode, Danielle (October 2002). Killers in Eden: The true story of killer whales and their remarkable partnership with the whalers of Twofold Bay. ISBN 1865086525.

External links[edit]