Fashion, design & sustainability // teacher / researcher / designer

Whaling and paradigm shifts

Illustration, Sustainability

This week Australia had a success in the courts fighting Japanese scientific whaling.

What many people may not realise is how recent our own whaling history is.

Between 1952 and 1962, Tangalooma in Moreton Bay, Queensland was the biggest whaling station in the southern hemisphere (1).


In total, Australian workers killed 12,500 humpback whales in ten years, 6277 just from the Moreton Bay station (2).

They used mechanised harpoons. Unlike Moby Dick, the whales almost never fought back (3).

After the whales were killed, they were processed on the flensing decks.


Workers extracted oil for glycerine, margarine, cosmetics,  and pharmaceuticals. One whale meant 8000 kilograms of oil (4).


The whale meat was used for pet and human consumption, and the bones and offal for livestock and fertilisers.

The baleen (also known as whalebone) was used in many products, from corsets to glasses frames.

baleenBaleen isn’t actually whalebone. It’s the stiff ‘hairs’ in the whale’s mouth that capture the krill, similar to a broom head. It’s made of keratin, like our fingernails (5).

By the 1960s, the humpback population had dropped from an unfished stock of over 10,000 to less than 500 adults (6).

 Today, the thought of killing whales is abhorrent to most Australians. It seems extraordinary that we efficiently slaughtered 12,000 whales only a few decades ago.


At the time, people did get angry about it.

There were anti-whaling protests.

In one incident, a protester poured a vat of whale blood over a whaling conference delegate (7).

The Prime Minister’s daughter Phoebe Fraser brought the issue to her dad’s attention (8).

I would like to think we stopped whaling due to public pressure.

More likely, it was because we killed most of the whales, and it became uneconomic to search for any that remained (stocks were so low they began using planes to spot whales from the air). And so we substituted whale products with petroleum-based products.

Happily for the humpbacks, their population has recovered, and whale watching is now a $32 million dollar industry in Australia (9). That’s more money than we made from killing them.

There are some lessons here for fashion. It often seems as if the present paradigm of the industry is here to stay.

Clothing will continue to come cheap, fast, its origins unknown and its destination landfill.

But, as this story shows, paradigm shifts do occur, and what was once acceptable can become unthinkable.




2. Bannister, J.L. 1989. “FAUNA of AUSTRALIA 52. BALAENOPTERIDAE” Accessed 29 November 2013.

3. Newton, John. 2013. A Savage History: Whaling in the Pacific and Southern Oceans. University of New South Wales Press: Sydney.


5. Seaworld Whale Watching tour informational video, 30 November 2013.

6. Bannister, J.L. 1989. ibid.

7. Newton, John. 2013. ibid.

8. Newton, John. 2013. ibid.



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