The whaling industry was important to the early economy of New South Wales. The first Sydney-owned ship set sail in 1805. As well as providing an export commodity, whaling ships brought food and supplies to the colonists. As late as 1832, the industry accounted for 52 per cent of Australian exports. However, by 1855 this had fallen to 1 per cent as pastoralism expanded and petroleum replaced whale oil as a preferred fuel.
The Australian whaling industry dates from the very earliest days of colonisation, when British whalers began to visit Sydney town. In fact, many of the ships that brought convicts to New South Wales were whaling ships, profiting from having a live cargo on their outward journey. The government provided assistance to the British ships from as early as 1791, but the first locally owned whaler, the King George set out in June 1805. Its destination was the Derwent Estuary, off Hobart, where it carried out what was known as bay-whaling for southern right whales.
The first whaling station in New South Wales was established in Twofold Bay (where the town of Eden is now located) in the late 1920s. Famously, operations from the shore-based station were conducted with the help of killer whales (orcas), that herded the humpbacks into the bay and, so it was believed, even alerted the whalers to their presence. The whalers even had names for many of the killer whales, the most famous of which was called Old Tom.
While aboriginal people are not known to have hunted whales, it seems the local Yuin people knew about the hunting tactics of the orcas and seized the opportunity to obtain meat from beached animals. Many of the Yuin worked for the whalers and continued the traditional practice of ‘calling the killers’.
Other whaling operations began in the 1830s and 1840s in Portland and Port Fairy in Victoria, on the Bass Strait islands, and even at the Sydney heads. A whaling station near Albany in Western Australia was established by 1836. Although whaling became less significant in terms of exports by the middle of the century, interest in the industry continued well into the 20th century. The last whaling station, in Albany WA, closed in 1978.