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King of the Killer Whales: The Legend of Old Tom and the Gruesome ‘Law of the Tongue’

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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killer-whale-old-tom

Still from a documentary from 1912. Old Tom swims alongside a whaling boat being towed by a harpooned baleen whale (out of frame). A whale calf swims between Old Tom and the boat. Credit: Charles Eden Wellings

This is the story of an orca named Old Tom, who during the early 20th century spent almost four decades helping fishermen catch baleen whales off the coast of Australia. In return, Old Tom and his pod feasted on the lips and tongues of the whalers’ haul.

The coastal town of Eden sits just over 470 kilometres south of Sydney, Australia. Originally occupied by the indigenous Thaua, or Thawa, people of the Yuin nation, it became a major whaling spot for the Europeans during the early 19th century. At this time, carpenter Alexander Davidson and his grandson, “Fearless” George Davidson, built a small whaling station about 7 km away on the southern shore of Twofold Bay – the third deepest natural harbour in the southern hemisphere. Still recognised as one of 12 coastal aggregation areas for southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in Australia, Twofold Bay was the perfect place to set up shop, and by 1860, the Davidsons had established what would become the longest running shore-based whaling station in the country.

Each year as autumn gave way to winter, a population of orcas would migrate from Antarctic waters to Eden in search of food. Initially the Davidsons wrote the orcas off as a nuisance, always getting in the way of their catch, but attitudes changed when they hired a number of Yuin locals to join their whaling crews. It’s said that the indigenous inhabitants of Eden had been hunting baleen whales in the bay for at least 10,000 years prior to European settlement, and in that time had developed a unique relationship with the orcas.

According to a Sydney Morning Herald edition from the 18 September 1930, the orcas would track down baleen whales congregating around the mouth of Twofold Bay, and shepherd them closer to the coast. While the pod trapped the whales in the bay, one of the males would position himself outside the whaling station, and breach and thrash his tail on the water until he’d attracted the whalers’ attention.

Named Old Tom, this orca was almost seven metres long and weighed a hefty six tonnes. Because of his continued interaction with the whalers, he was known to the whalers as the leader of the pod.

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A 1908 photograph showing Old Tom behind an Eden whaler.

Once a baleen whale had been caught and killed by the whalers – during their best season they caught as many as 22 – its carcass was left in the water, hitched to the boat, for the orcas to feed on its enormous tongues and lips. The orcas left the rest of the carcass, including the highly valuable blubber and bones, to the whalers, and this unique arrangement became known as ‘the Law of the Tongue’.

Three generations of the Davidson family whalers honoured this arrangement, and it’s rumoured that the crew would help orcas trapped in nets in the bay and the orcas would drive sharks away from the whalers’ small, open rowboats.

But like our sweet prince of Dorne, all great things must come to an end.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald report, in about 1923, a local retired pastoralist, John Logan, went out on the water in Twofold Bay with George Davidson. When Old Tom saw the little fishing boat, he drove a small whale to the surface nearby, and Davidson harpooned it. Poor Old Tom fought, but he didn’t get his share:

But this particular day, says [local historian, Barry] Smith, “Logan saw a storm coming. He said, ‘George, this might be the last whale you get all season. If we leave it for Tom, you’ll lose it.’

“George said, ‘But what about Tom?’ To which Logan replied, ‘Bugger Old Tom!’

“The upshot was a tug-of-war developed between Logan and Old Tom, which led to Old Tom losing a couple of teeth.

“Logan’s young daughter, who was with them that day, remembered her father saying, ‘Oh God, what have I done?’”

As a former military veterinarian, Logan knew what a bunch of missing teeth could mean for a wild orca. Sure enough, the holes in his gums became infected, and Old Tom starved to death. His body washed up on the shore in 1930, and out of guilt, Logan financed the construction of the Eden Killer Whale Museum, which still holds the bones of Old Tom to this day.

Soon after his death, Old Tom’s pod stopped appearing in Twofold Bay. Perhaps it was related to his death, but another theory is that the remainder of the pod was hunted down in Jervis Bay – about 300 km up the coast – by oblivious Norwegian whalers.

Either way, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Watch a wonderful 50-minute documentary on Old Tom:

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Bec Crew About the Author: Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science writer and award-winning blogger. She is the author of 'Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' (NewSouth Press). Follow on Twitter @BecCrew.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Klynch 12:17 pm 09/12/2014

    test post. moderation test.

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