Nfld. & Labrador

A whaler remembers: One of N.L.'s last whale hunters shares his story

Vaughan George is one of a handful of men who took part in whale hunt off Newfoundland's coast, writes Jo-Ann Dooley.

Vaughan George is still passionate about the long-forgotten whaling industry

Vaughan George stands beside the harpoon gun from his father's whaling vessel. It's now mounted on his front lawn. George still fires the gun off every New Year's Eve at midnight. (Jo-Ann Dooley/CBC)

The South Dildo Whaling and Sealing Museum is housed in a small nondescript building along the main road into the Trinity Bay community.

Inside, artifacts and memorabilia commemorate the last days of whaling off Newfoundland's coast — a time when men took to the high seas to hunt the biggest catch of them all.

To hunt these whales, it's excitement, it's almost like a big sport.- Vaughan George

Dozens, if not hundreds, of items line the walls and tables and sit inside protective glass cases — everything from photos to whale bones to harpoons, knives and even a human-sized harpoon gun bolted to the floor.

Almost everything inside this museum belongs to Vaughan George, former whaler and collector extraordinaire.

Whaling was a family tradition for the Georges of Dildo. 

Vaughan George describes his father, Clarence, a famed whaling captain in his time, as a crack shot and one of the best in the world.

When George was just a boy, he caught the bug. There's nothing he wanted more than to be out on the water, hunting whales.

Vaughan George, as a young man, practicing his shot aboard his father's vessel. (Submitted by Vaughan George)

"Hearing my father speak about the adventurous time he had at the whales," said George.  "To hunt these whales, it's excitement, it's almost like a big sport."

From daylight to dark

For six years, from 1967 to 1972, George went whaling with his father and brother on their 55-foot vessel, the Arctic Skipper. Mainly, they harpooned smaller whales: minkes and potheads.  

"Sometimes, you know, from daylight to dark we were on the go, on the hunt," George said

"When a whale was sighted, I mean everybody got excited, because we had to chase that whale and we could be chasing that whale for an hour, two hours, before we got close enough to get a shot."

Like any hunter, the chase just added to the experience for George.

Vaughan George's father, Clarence, firing the harpoon gun aboard his vessel. (Submitted by Vaughan George)

"It's almost like if you go salmon fishing, you'd hook a salmon, I mean he's putting up a fight and trying to get away," George said.  "Until we got that whale in for the second shot …to make sure he's ours, you know, that was exciting there," George said.

Processing 'arctic steak' 

The whales were then tethered to the boat and towed to the plant in Dildo where the oil and meat were processed. 

Much of the "arctic steak" — as whale meat was called then — was sent to Norway, but there was plenty of local appetite for it too. George himself was a big fan.

"Yes, I ate quite a bit of whale meat, everybody loved whale meat," his eyes lighting up at the thought.

"It's almost like our beef is today. It's a red meat and a very tender meat. I'd love to have a feed of it every day right now, if I could get it," he laughed.

Yes, I'd go back to the whaling industry today, if I could. It wasn't just the money, it was just the excitement.- Vaughan George

By the early 1970s, George's whaling days were numbered. He knew larger whales, like the finback, were declining.

But he believed the smaller whales — the minkes and potheads his family hunted — were still plentiful, and he hoped that hunt would be spared.

When these whales were also included in the hunting ban, George saw his family's livelihood go down the drain.

"It came pretty quick, and it was really a disappointment to us … because that was our livelihood. All our jobs [were] gone," he said. "We had families to feed."

It was also a big blow for the community of Dildo. Dozens of people who worked in the town's whale processing plant were left high and dry.

"That hurt a lot of people. All their jobs [were] gone so they had to go elsewhere and find work," said George.

Preserving history of whaling

But George wasn't about to forget his whaling days. He kept everything — and I mean, everything.

Harpoons, whale bones, knives, licences, logbooks, even the life ring from one of his family's vessels have all found their way into the Dildo whaling museum.

Whale bones and tools of the trade on display at the South Dildo Whaling Museum. Vaughan George etched the whale on the bone (left). (Jo-Ann Dooley/CBC)

George takes tremendous pride in the collection. "I can look back and now I got all the history of the Newfoundland whaling industry right at my doorstep," he said.

As for George, his most prized objects in the collection are the things that belonged to his father. 

"I got a lot of stuff belonged to my father and that means a lot to me...all the whaling artifacts, I got his stuff right here in the museum," he said.

A son's admiration

George's admiration for his dad's 40-year career in whaling is evident.

"He was quite a man, he was quite a character. Everybody really worshipped him at the whales, I must say."

Although his family was forced out of whaling, Vaughan George has found ways to keep their roots in the industry alive.

In addition to his collection of memorabilia at the museum, George's own home pays tribute to the whaling industry.

Vaughan Georges shows off his harpoon gate posts in front of his Dildo home. (Jo-Ann Dooley/CBC)

A harpoon gun from his father's vessel is mounted on the front lawn. Instead of the white wooden gate posts that are typical in rural communities, George's driveway is marked by harpoons.

He has also tried his hand at carving whale bone. "Got fooling around with the whale bones, sanding them down and shining them up … just done a little bit of carving for myself and it worked out pretty good," he said.

  • Tomorrow: Meet a four-decade veteran of the whaling industry

"Pretty good" is a bit an understatement. When an official from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now called The Canadian Museum of History) saw his work, he invited George to create carvings of 10 whales for display there.

George graciously complied, but he's never even seen the final display.

For George, the memories of his whaling days live on. He agrees the hunt had to come to an end, but that doesn't dampen his passion for that time long ago.

To this day, he still misses whaling.

"Yes, I'd go back to the whaling industry today, if I could," he said.

"It wasn't just the money. It was just the excitement and what you loved to do."