Nfld. & Labrador

A whale of a tale: the dying days of the N.L. whale hunt

Tom Cole of Avondale recounts his years spent in the province's whaling industry.

45 years ago Tom Cole hunted giants of the deep - massive finback whales

During his early 20's, Tom Cole of Avondale took to the high seas to hunt whales. Today people are shocked to hear how he earned his living as a young man. (CBC)

Tom Cole of Avondale is accustomed to perplexed stares and incredulity when he tells people how he earned his living in his youth.    

"Most people are really surprised when I say I used to work on a whaler: 'You what?!'" said Cole.

"You know, they thought there was nobody even alive today that actually done that." 

In 2015, whale hunting seems a distant, perhaps even mildly embarrassing, chapter in the province's history.

We value whales for their beauty, majesty and of course the big dollars tourists pay to catch a glimpse of the massive creatures.

But for hundreds of years, up until 1972, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians hunted whales for their oil and meat.

Now, Tom Cole is one of just a handful of seafarers still around who worked in whaling off the province's coast.

Tom Cole plays a few tunes aboard the West Whale 8, circa 1970. (Submitted by Tom Cole)

'When you're young, you're more daring'

Cole's father had been a whaler and set his son up with the job back in 1968. 

Cole was in his early 20s, and up for anything.

"I was young. When you're young, you're more daring. I wouldn't say you're braver, you haven't got any sense enough to be brave," he said.

"If it was today, some of the things I done back when I was young, I'd be frightened to death," he laughed.

At close to 70 years old, Cole looks fit and spry, and it's not hard to picture him working on the water.

For three seasons, he was part of a 13-man crew aboard the steel-hulled steamer West Whale 8, out of Dildo.

They took to the high seas for the biggest catch of them all — the massive finback, or fin,  whale.

The only creature on earth larger than it is the blue whale, which wasn't allowed to be hunted at the time. 

Often measuring between 19 to 21 metres long, fins are no small prey.

But Cole said that wasn't daunting. On the contrary, it was exciting.

Some of the tools commonly used in whale hunting. Whale bones in foreground. The history of whaling in the province is preserved at the South Dildo Whaling and Sealing Museum. (CBC)

Thar she blows!

Cole worked in the engine room, and would wait to hear the call from the crow's nest.

"I'd hear someone saying 'thar she blows!' That was it, the excitement started," he reminisced.

(Yes, Cole said that famed phrase, 'thar she blows!', was actually used by whalers, and was not just  the stuff of folklore, books and movies.)

"When we spotted the blow, see the steam, the vapour coming up out of that blow hole, that was it," he said.  "You'd see a fella taking off for the crow's nest. Then you'd see the old man getting ready to run out [to the gun deck]. You'd see the mate making sure the ropes and stuff wasn't tangled up for the harpoon."

An almost two-metre-long harpoon gun was bolted to the deck at the bow of the vessel. From there, Capt. Ernie Bergen, would fire that first crucial harpoon to try to disable the whale.

Make no mistake, said Cole, hunting a thrashing 59-tonne beast was no small feat.

No garden party

"They'd put up a good fight. It wouldn't be no garden party, just walk up with a harpoon into it and that's all that's to it," he said.

The initial harpoon was attached to about 800 metres of heavy rope, and a winch, aboard the vessel.  

Same thing as  trouting  or salmon fishing I guess, technically.- Tom Cole

"I often see him towing the boat. We'd be going with the engines running full out, that's like you're talking about 30 knots and the engine 'd be running free and he'd be towing her," Cole said. "So he'd be going faster than 30 knots."

The whale would eventually exhaust itself and then came the real work of winching in the mighty creature.

That took four men, according to Cole.

"You couldn't start just winching it back, because you'd bust it. You'd have to wait for him to give you a bit of slack and then start the winch up and bring in a bit and then wait for another bit of slack, like that," Cole said.

"Same thing as trouting or salmon fishing I guess, technically. Only, it was a winch instead of a pole and there was a rope instead of a line."

When the crew managed to get the whale close to the vessel, the captain lined up the kill shot. Bergen aimed for the lungs for a quick clean death.

A finback whale carcass being prepped at the Dildo whale processing plant. (circa 1970) (Submitted by Vaughan George)

Then the race was on to tow the whale back to the Dildo plant before the meat spoiled.

"We had to get back in with the first whale within 24 hours from the time we killed him, because if we didn't the meat would go bad," said Cole.

"The company wouldn't lose money, but the crew would, because we were getting paid a share of every whale we killed." 

On top of Cole's salary, his share was an extra about $19 per animal. 

But that dropped to only $6 if the whale meat spoiled. So there was lots of incentive to set a speedy course for the Dildo plant.

If the whales were plentiful and hunting went well, Cole said they could land multiple catches in one day.

"The maximum we could take was five. We'd have three on one side, two on the other," he said.

Dildo whale processing plant. Finback whales were towed to the plant to be processed and packaged. Whale meat or 'Arctic steak' was consumed in Norway and was also a popular meal in the province. (Submitted by Vaughan George)

The personal toll

The work was long and hard, according to Cole. But the worst part was the months on end away from his wife and young children. 

It's easy to see family means a lot to Cole: every available inch of wall space in his small living room is crammed with family photos of weddings, anniversaries and graduations.

But back in his whaling days he rarely saw his wife and kids between March and the following Christmas.

"Maybe once a month... I'd dart home just for one hour," said Cole. "Just to come home and see the family where the youngsters wouldn't forget me."

Despite that distance, Cole enjoyed his whaling days, and his crew mates served as a surrogate family.

"We were like one big family," said Cole. "You probably knew more about your buddies that worked on the boat with you than their wives probably knew. You talked about everything, you told each other everything."

Harpoon tips and other whaling artifacts on display at the South Dildo Whaling and Sealing Museum. (Jo-Ann Dooley/CBC)

When the hunt in Newfoundland and Labrador ended for good in 1972, Cole had no regrets.

"I don't think many were sorry to see it go. Not the majority of people. I guess something like the seal fishery. I guess they thought it was cruel," he said.

"It was a necessity one time, and then turned into something that was no longer a necessity."

Time and social convention have changed Tom Cole. And these days, when he sees a whale, he has a whole new perspective.

"I'm glad that we stopped now. When I see 'em, playing and stuff, they're a beautiful creature. They're jumping up and flipping...and they're a very intelligent animal," he said. "You almost got a human feeling for 'em."


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