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Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales

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by Dave Walsh (subscribe)
I enjoy writing about Adelaide and its many attractions. If you think Adelaide is boring, the problem is not with Adelaide. adelaideunearthed.blogspot.com.au/
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Meet the gentle giants of the sea
leviathan, whales, history, history of whales, south australia, whaling, maritime museum, whaling, port adelaide, humpback whales
Swimming With Humpback Whales, Tonga (Image: Scott Portelli)


Few people realise that whaling was South Australia's first industry. Even before the arrival of European settlers on the mainland, whales were hunted from Kangaroo Island, with the oil being used in lamps for lighting. Whalebone was used in making umbrellas and in garments for stays, corsets and collars.

Hunting and killing the whales was a dangerous but necessary occupation, and shipwrecks and other accidents were not uncommon. Two whaling stations opened in Victor Harbor in the mid-1830's, but most whaling in the area ceased by the 1860's

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Seamen About to Fire a Harpoon 1914 (Image: SLSA PRG-280-1-8-303)


Leviathan: An astonishing history of whales is a new exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide which explores the history of whaling in Australia and around the world. The exhibition challenges audiences to look beyond the biological importance of whales and to examine also cultural questions. Consider different viewpoints by unpacking the history of the relationship between humans and whales across time and cultures.

Hunting whales in South Australia was such a part of life that Parliament passed an Act for the Regulation and Protection of the Whale Fisheries in September 1839. It provided clarity of ownership if a dispute over a whale carcase occurred:
The whale belonged to the party whose harpoon first struck the whale. If the line broke and a second harpoon was struck, the whale became joint property.

leviathan, whales, history, history of whales, south australia, whaling, maritime museum, whaling, port adelaide, prosthetic hand
Corporal Coles' Prosthetic Hand - Royal Adelaide Hospital Collection


Historical artefacts and the cultural aspects of the whale industry are examined in Leviathan: An astonishing history of whales. Featuring in the exhibition are an array of objects from whaling expeditions from the 1800s all the way to the late 1970s. These include a giant whale skull that can be virtually explored by visitors using an innovative app, a prosthetic hand made from whale bone after a Corporal blew his hand off, a whale penis lamp, and rare objects linked to whale hunting in Lamelera, a remote island village in Indonesia where whaling still underpins their culture today. Tabua (whale teeth) and Wasekaseka (split whale tooth necklaces) from Fiji and vibrant artworks telling the story of Jeedara the Whale are just some of the stunning cultural artefacts also on display that explores the spiritual power invested in the whale.

The exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum also looks at how whales featured in the cosmology of SA's Mirning and Ngarrindjeri people, and the cultures of Fiji, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Western cultures were once heavily reliant on the products of the industry - the burning of whale oil illuminated houses, factories and streets and also lubricated machinery during the Industrial Revolution.

leviathan, whales, history, history of whales, south australia, whaling, maritime museum, whaling, port adelaide, william duke
The Flurry - William Duke (Image: W.L Crowther Library)

"Leviathan is about human interaction with these gigantic awe-inspiring creatures, and it is also about the interaction between cultures and cultural diversity - this is what makes it so exciting. A great example is the history of Ngarrindjeri whalers at Encounter Bay where Aboriginal men, employed by colonists, showed great skill as harpooners." says Dr Adam Paterson, Curator.

Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales opens at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide on Friday December 15, and admission is free with normal Museum entry fees applying. For more information see the website or the Maritime Museum Facebook page.

leviathan, whales, history, history of whales, south australia, whaling, maritime museum, whaling, port adelaide, white whale
Migaloo - The White Whale by Christine Tschuna (Image: Arts Ceduna)

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Why? Discover South Australia's relationship with whales
Where: South Australian Maritime Museum
Cost: Included in Museum admission
Your Comment
Great article!
by Jay Johnson (score: 3|1192) 11 days ago
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