THE flensing deck of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station never leaves you.
Nearly 40 years after the last sperm whales were hauled up by steam winches and roughly dissected on the timber slipway, something putrid will trigger the memory of that smell; it was an inescapable, stomach-wrenching stench from the bowels of Davy Jones’ locker.
My old man was a cameraman for Golden West Network in Albany, so every now and then we’d be dragged along to film a giant great white chomping into the latest catch being dragged up the slipway. Later he captured the protests and bitter division in the coastal community as conservation wrested the upper hand from economics; Cheynes Beach Whaling Company had employed 100 locals but suddenly, in 1978, it all came to an end.
In the ensuing years, whaling was a bit of a dirty word in town, and people mostly kept their connection to the industry on the quiet. There was the odd exception; John Bell had been the company’s spotter, flying out to the edge of the continental shelf looking for his prey, and he later earned fame by turning the station into a museum and working as a conservationist spotting whales for the state government’s environment department.
But mostly the whalers kept quiet and the myriad of stories from the time have mostly now soaked into the bar at the White Star Hotel and disappeared.
Ellen Coates grew up in Albany a few years after the station closed, but her father John was a well-known seafaring identity in town and her house was full of the stories of whaling, as well as some odd mementoes.
“I grew up with scrimshaw and whales teeth around the house, and we had a bottle of whale oil for burley,” Coates says.
“A lot of people had whale bones in their backyards.”
One story from that time stood out, which the artist says has almost become legend down south; Ches Stubbs, skipper of one of the company’s whaling boats, got his leg caught in the harpoon’s rope and it was ripped off. He was saved by Bell, with the pilot earning a bravery award for the rescue.
“This particular story is a part of the history of Albany,” says Coates, who says her video installation with fellow artist Anna Nazzari isn’t a documentary about whaling, but a re-imagining of the whalers and their stories.
In the piece, which is accompanied by the pair’s own scrimshaw (engraving and carving whales’ teeth), Stubbs’ leg becomes an offering to the sea following its dramatic departure from its owner, and starts to develop its own ecology.
“We are exploring how those whales were killed to the point of extinction, and we take it to a dark sci-fi place where the whale gets retribution,” says Coates.
The pair did a residency in the town a few years back and learned the skills needed to be a scrimshander, interviewing old whalers. They say they were fascinating to interview, and their reverence for the whales often misunderstood.
“They got to see them every day, and in ways no one else could,” says Coates.
Open Water: The Offering opens July 7 at Moana Project Space at 618 Hay Street, Perth, and runs until July 28.
by STEVE GRANT