The Killer Whales of Eden

Feb 26, 2024 0 comments

The Thaua people, who reside around Twofold Bay on the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, share a special bond with killer whales or orcas, which they call beowas. “We consider beowas to be our brothers,” writes Thaua historian Steven Holmes in a study published in Journal of Heredity in December 2023. According to Thaua beliefs, when a member of their community passes away, they are reincarnated as a beowa.

Holmes recounts a personal anecdote involving his great-great-grandfather, a blind man who would walk along the beach singing to the beowas. The beowas would follow him along the beach communicating back and forth with him. “It was a strong friendship between these beowas, and my people,” Holmes reflects.

“Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales”, 1867 by Sir Oswald Brierly.

The bond between the Thaua people and the beowas transcended mere companionship—it represented a relationship of mutual understanding and benefit. Over generations, the beowas assisted the men in hunting by herding other whales into the shallow waters of the bay, facilitating the whalers' task of finishing them off. While the men harvested the meat, the killer whales enjoyed the delicacy of the tongue. This unusual alliance was initially documented in 1844 by European whalers, yet Holmes indicates that this collaborative hunting tradition dates back centuries.

The hunting expeditions typically occurred during winter, coinciding with the arrival of a population of killer whales in Twofold Bay. At times, the Thaua people would serenade the beowas, encouraging them to herd baleen whales closer to shore. With strategic precision, the beowas would ambush the baleen whales, tearing along their fins and flukes, while others swam beneath them to bite along the lip area. Some would breach atop the whale, near the blowhole, attempting to submerge and drown it. Once the prey was driven into shallower waters, local hunters swiftly dispatched them.

In a gesture of gratitude for the beowas' assistance, the Thaua hunters would sever the tongue of the fallen whale and cast it into the waters for the beowas to feast upon.

In the 19th Century, European colonizers capitalized on this extraordinary cooperative hunting dynamic to create a booming commercial whaling operation in the bay. The killer whales would herd the victims into the bay and then alert the whalers of the baleen whales by slapping their tail and splashing in front of the whaling station. Responding to these cues, the whalers would swiftly launch their boats, following the lead of the beowas to locate the prized baleen whale targets. Once harpooned, the whale was left anchored overnight to allow the killer whales to eat the tongue and lips. Only after the beowas had had their feast, the carcass was collected for processing. This arrangement was called "the law of the tongue".

Old Tom swimming alongside a whaling boat that is being towed by a harpooned whale.

One killer whale called Old Tom became legendary due to his active role in the hunts for at least three decades. He would tug at the tow ropes, seizing and pulling the harpoon line in his mouth after it was shot into the baleen whale. Aside from Old Tom, there were many recognizable individuals all named after popular whalers such as Hooky, Cooper, Humpy, Typee, Jackson, Stranger, and Big Ben. It's estimated that towards the late 19th century, there were approximately 25 to 30 killer whales divided into three distinct groups. However, over time, their numbers dwindled, and by the 1930s, the once-thriving population of killer whales had vanished entirely from the bay.

There have been many theories regarding the disappearance of the killer whales from Twofold Bay. According to Thaua tradition, the decline was attributed to a breach of trust—an event etched in infamy in 1900, when a European whaler callously gunned down a stranded killer whale on the beach. This senseless act of violence reverberated deeply within the Aboriginal community. It was said that only seven members of the once 30 strong pod returned the following year.

The breach of trust was further compounded in the mid-1920s, when another whaler defied the established protocol, attempting to tow a whale ashore without adhering to the sacred "law of the tongue." In the ensuing struggle, Old Tom seized the tow rope with his teeth and lost some of his own in the process. When Old Tom was discovered dead on the shore a few years later, his mouth was abscessed because of the missing teeth, and its likely he died of starvation. The skeleton of Old Tom is now preserved at the Killer Whale Museum in Eden, established in 1931, shortly after old Tom’s death.

The skeleton of Old Tom at Killer Whale Museum in Eden. Photo credit: Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of Old Tom's demise, the pod ceased its appearances off the coast of Eden, the coastal town where captured whales were processed. While some speculate that his death directly influenced this absence, another grim theory suggests that the remaining members of the pod met their end at the hands of Norwegian whalers in Jervis Bay, located approximately 300 km up the coast.

Since their departure, only a scant few sightings of killer whales have been reported in Twofold Bay, none of which are descendants of Old Tom's group, as confirmed by DNA analysis. Regrettably, it is widely believed that these once-renowned killer whales have succumbed to extinction, leaving behind a legacy of cooperation and companionship now relegated to history.

# Ancestry testing of “Old Tom,” a killer whale central to mutualistic interactions with human whalers, Journal of Heredity
# The Legend of Old Tom and the Gruesome "Law of the Tongue", Scientific American
# Killer whales in Eden on anniversary of Old Tom's death, ABC


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}