The Law of the Tongue (not gay porn)

“If I say that I am more interested in preventing the slaughter of large whales than I am in improving housing conditions for people, I am likely to shock some of my friends.”—Richard Dawkins

 

NewSouthWalesThe Law of the Tongue refers to the obviously unspoken agreement between a group of whalers in Eden, Australia and a pod (herd) of killer whales that hunted with them for three generations, roughly between the years 1840 and 1930, give or take a year or two depending on who you ask. Some deny that these events even happened, but there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary. To the locals, especially the children who grew up with this, it was just a normal occurrence that they took for granted. Everybody knew about it. According to one documentary filmmaker, they don’t understand our fascination with it.

For those of you who are already upset that I would write about something as despicable as whaling, I ask you to consider the fact that this was a different time. Electricity was nonexistent when this began (okay, it obviously existed, but we couldn’t do anything useful with it), and later on was rare or completely unavailable in many places. Whale blubber was a valuable source of oil for lamps. Also, people then had no idea how intelligent whales were. They were just another species swimming around in the ocean. As for the whales killed as a result of this unusual collaboration, they probably would have died anyway. The orcas (that’s another name for killer whales and the one that I’ll be using from now on to avoid confusion) most likely would have killed them on their own, but they somehow figured out that it would be easier if they had human help. How they figured that out and forged this mutually beneficial arrangement is the fascinating, and not completely understood, part of the story.

The highest concentration of orcas is in Antarctic waters, which makes this a dangerous place for other whales that live there to try to raise their young. The baleen whales leave these waters to get away from the orcas and give birth and care for their newborns in a safer environment. They swim north to warmer areas which they can do because they store blubber to provide energy for the journey, which orcas can’t do. However, there are still orcas out there in smaller numbers waiting for them. If the baleens migration intersects with Australia, they must either turn east or west to go around it. For those that go east, the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania funnels the baleens into a small lane of ocean running along the coast just outside of Twofold Bay.

The orcas in this area would lie in wait there because the baleens best defense against them is to dive to depths that orcas can’t, but they couldn’t do this in the shallow water so near shore. The orcas would attack there and steer the baleens into the bay, a place that they normally wouldn’t go since it would be easy to isolate and entrap them in such an enclosed area. But TwofoldBayTwofold Bay was perfect for this because its mouth was wider than most and so the baleens wouldn’t realize that they were swimming into a trap. Zoologist Danielle Clode, who has studied orcas in general and the case of the Eden orcas in particular, has noted that all orcas are very adaptive and resourceful hunters. They employ much more cunning and sophisticated tactics than any other predators.

This partnership between these orcas and the whalers centered around the Davidson family, who ran a subsistence whaling operation out of Eden with a handful of small boats. The number of whales that they killed during this roughly 90 year period probably didn’t equal the number taken by the larger, offshore whaling companies to the north in a single season. Why the orcas chose the Davidsons is anybody’s guess, but it was definitely their choice. There were a number of other whaling families in the area, but the orcas only seemed to trust the Davidsons. There may have been a good reason for this, but it’s all just speculation. We’ll get to that later.

A hunt would begin by an orca swimming to the mouth of the Kiah River near Eden, by some accounts practically right outside the Davidson’s front door, and tail slapping the water’s surface to get the whalers’ attention and alert them that there was a baleen whale nearby. It sounded like a rifle shot according to Eden resident Doug Ireland. You couldn’t miss it. Often this happened at night, and a boat would be launched immediately, which was unheard of. Whaling was a dangerous business even in daylight. Setting off for an unknown location in complete darkness was insanity. They did it in these cases because if they didn’t, the opportunity for a kill might be lost. Also, they had the orcas to guide them. If the whalers lost track of the orcas in the dark, they would whack their oars on the water and the orcas would swim back to them. They didn’t try to hunt the baleens at night, however. That could have been suicide.

The orcas would chase the whale into the bay and attack until it was worn down. According to witnesses, they would harass and bite until the whale was half-dead. The whalers only came in at the end to finish the job. They only had small boats similar to long canoes. When the harpoon was thrown, it had a rope attached so that they wouldn’t lose their prey. They referred to this as having the whale “fastened,” and that’s when things got dangerous. They were going for a wild ride until the injured whale finally ran out of steam and they could finish the job.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the end of the hunt. It’s really very sad and difficult to hear. Suffice it to say that the cries of the dying whales were so pitiful that they even convinced George Davidson’s own niece that what they were doing to these creatures was horribly wrong. If it makes you feel any better, occasionally one of the whales would be able to use their tail to smash the whalers’ boat. In the whaling business, they referred to this tail smashing as “the hand of God.” When this happened in Twofold Bay, the orcas would circle the men to protect them from sharks until they were rescued. There were even reports of orcas pulling unconscious and drowning whalers to the surface.

The whalers always left the whale carcass overnight, anchored so that it wouldn’t drift and with a buoy so that they could find it the next day. During the night, the orcas would eat the tongue and leave the rest of the whale, which is actually standard procedure for them. That’s the only part that they seem to like. That was how this arrangement came to be known as the Law of the Tongue. The orcas got first dibs on the carcass, but the tongue was all that they took. The rest belonged to the humans.

 

Tom&George
Tom and George

How all of this got started is a bit murky, but we do have some clues. The Davidsons were likely not the first people to be helped by the orcas. The Yuin people of southeast Australia had a routine that they would put into action whenever they saw a whale being pursued by orcas near shore. A man who would pretend to be crippled would hobble along the beach, following them and lighting fires along the way. The fires were to attract the orcas attention, and the lame act was to invoke their compassion and make them want to help him. There’s no real confirmation on how well this worked, but if it did it probably wasn’t even necessary. Since the orcas only ate the tongue anyway, there was a pretty good chance that a kill taking place within sight of shore would have drifted onto the beach with the tide anyway. The Yuins must have known this, so why did they go to all of that trouble? Who knows? People are nuts. There’s just no accounting for some of the silly, superstitious stuff we do. Shaking hands was originally a way of showing the other person that you weren’t concealing a knife. It’s now the most common way that bacteria is spread, but we still do it anyway. When was the last time that you shook hands with someone just to make sure that they weren’t planning to stab you? The orcas were probably just laughing about the whole scam.

Many Yuins became whalers when the Europeans showed up, even though they were not a maritime people. They held orcas in high regard, and this is very possibly how the Law of the Tongue began. If the Davidsons had one or more Yuins working for them around 1840, and they somehow managed to kill a baleen whale with some orca help, perhaps the Yuins had managed to convince them to let the orcas have first crack at the carcass by assuring them that they would only take the tongue and leave the rest. That’s pure conjecture, but nobody seems to have a more plausible explanation.*

If something along these lines did happen, it would explain why the orcas chose and then stuck with the Davidsons. It’s been proven that killer whales can recognize specific people by their appearance, even if they all look alike to us. If a Davidson whaling crew made killing a baleen whale easier and then allowed them to take the only part that they wanted, they may have figured out that this was a strategy that worked to their advantage. Also, maybe the orcas were conservationists and didn’t like to waste so much of their kills. You never know.

They may have even tried this tactic with other whalers only to discover that these men were not so generous and kept all of the baleen for themselves. If the orcas could tell these people apart, then it would be a no-brainer as to who you could trust. The fact that the Davidson’s boats were all painted a distinctive green could only improve that likelihood.

How all of this came to a conclusion is less of a mystery than how it started, but it’s still not perfectly clear. Some say that it ended due to whales being hunted to near extinction and the orcas having to move on to find another source of food. However, there is some disagreement as to when this happened. One source claims that this didn’t occur until the 1950s, while the human-orca partnership in Eden ended around 1930. Although this guy seems pretty authoritative in his knowledge of Australian whaling, he also mentions that orcas are bioluminescent. If that’s true, it’s news to me and every marine biologist in the world, so I’m not sure how reliable he really is. Another source says that all whaling in Twofold Bay ended in 1929. It would be hard to understand why this would be so if there were still plenty of whales out there.

It is known that in 1900 a drifter named Harry Silks killed one of the orcas that had become beached during a hunt with his knife, although no one is sure why. He did this in front of the rest of the orca pod, and the story goes that they left Twofold Bay immediately and only a few of them returned the following season. If these last few died off over the next three decades, that would explain how this eventually ended the pact.

Old Tom
That’s him

One of those that did return was Old Tom, the most famous of all of the killer whales of Eden and the number one sidekick of George Davidson, the last of the Davidson whalers. George found Old Tom’s dead body on September 17, 1930 and decided that his skeleton should be displayed in the Eden Killer Whale Museum. It’s still there today if you want to swing by Australia to check it out.

You might be wondering why I would put a story like this on a paranormal themed website. It’s weird, but there’s certainly nothing supernatural about it. Okay, fair enough. It may not be paranormal, but it is unusual, and more importantly, it’s interesting. That’s good enough for me. Also, I like killer whales. Them critters is smart.

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*Most of this conjecture comes from Dr. Clode, but some of it is my own, albeit inspired by hers. If it turns out to be right, she can have all the credit.

and all the devils are here

 

 


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