Today when you think of whaling, most people would think of Japanese or perhaps Norwegian fleets. It is surprising to think that Dundee was once a leading whaling port in Europe. Commercial whaling was very profitable and began in Dundee around 1753, but by the mid 1830s the industry was in crisis. Over fishing of the seas around the UK led to whales disappearing from local waters. The search for whales took the fleets north into the Arctic Circle and into dangerous ice covered waters. For many of the ships and crew the new hunting grounds would become their graveyard as their ships sank from being crushed by the ice. Losses mounted and companies failed. The whaling industry was on its knees and like the whale they hunted, they too faced extinction.
The Dundee whaling fleet was not immune to this chaos as it too was at the point of collapse. The industry seemed doomed but the city’s textile industry threw them a lifeline. A recent discovery made it possible to spin jute fibre. The secret ingredient to this success was whale oil. This discovery changed the industrial landscape of Dundee as textile production shifted from flax to jute. Dundee was set on the path to become the jute capital of the world. As the city’s jute industry expanded so did its demand for whale oil.
By the 1870s Arctic whale population was also in serious decline. If Dundee’s whaling industry was to meet the demands of the jute industry it had to find new hunting grounds. A Royal Navy expedition to Antarctica offered a possible solution. Published accounts of the voyage indicated that the seas of the Antarctic were abundant with whales. For the brave entrepreneur, commercial whaling in Antarctica could be a viable and profitable venture.
Robert Kinnes, the managing director of the Tay Whale Fishing Company Ltd, decided to test the waters of Antarctica. He sent four of his steam whalers on an expedition to the Weddell Sea to search for whales. The Diana and the Balaena were the first to leave, sailing from Dundee on Tuesday, 6th of September 1892. The Pole Star embarked the next day, followed by the Active on the Thursday. This was a big gamble for Kinnes. He had only just bought the Balaena and Diana within the last year, and owned only one more ship, the Chieftain. He was sending 80% of his assets to an unknown fate on the other side of the world.
On the 23rd of December, after a treacherous journey, the Active, Diana and the Balaena arrived at the agreed rendezvous point. (The Polar Star being a slower ship made an appearance on the 9th of January). The ships spent the rest of December and January searching for Right Whales but the search proved fruitless. There were plenty of whales around but they were too big for the ships to cope with. With no suitable whales to catch, the whalers turned to killing seals and penguins to cover the costs of the expedition. While exploring the northern waters of the Erebus and Terror Gulf, the Active discovered an uncharted inlet in Joinville Island and sailed into it to explore it further. Was the inlet a dead end or would it lead on to somewhere else?
With fog descending the ship anchored up for the night. On the morning of the 8th of January 1893, the Active made its discovery. As the ship continued its journey it found itself sailing into an estuary like body of water. The captain of the Active realised that the landmass to his right was in fact an uncharted island. The inlet he had sailed through was also uncharted.
Thomas Robertson, the captain of the Active, would leave his mark and named the uncharted island ‘Dundee Island’ after the ship’s home port. The inlet he had sailed through he called Active Sound after his ship. If you haven’t guessed already, the estuary like body of water he found he called the Firth of Tay.
The first of the whaling ships returned to Dundee on the 30th of May 1893. Sending an expedition to the Antarctic was a huge commercial risk for Robert Kinnes. All of the ships made it back to Dundee but they caught no whales. There were high hopes of a profit to be made but in the end they only broke even. The expedition did bring back some of the first photographs of the Southern Continent. The expedition helped pave the way for further Antarctic exploration. In 1902 another Dundee ship, the RRS Discovery would venture into the uncharted wilderness of Antarctica.