Friday, 6 May 2016

Whale on the port bow, sir. The Royal Australian Navy’s Whale Sighting Reports

When I was tracking down what the “Tripehounds” of Hong Kong were for my post on Valentine Burkhardt  (12 April 2016) I found information in the Reports of Proceedings of H.M.A.S Sydney. As I was looking through the Captain’s reports in 1954 I came across an Appendix which detailed sightings of whales from the ship.

It appears that all Royal Australian Navy ships were supposed to report sightings of whales under Australian Fleet General Order 227. I have not, however, been able to find what that order to ships’ captains stated.

Some ships had positive returns, the frigate H.M.A.S. Condamine in 1952, for example; this ship had an active role in the Korean War in that year.

Some ships included nil returns in their Report of Proceedings, the frigate H.M.A.S. Quadrant in 1955, for example.

In the Reports of some ships I can find no report of sightings, positive or negative. H.M.A.S. Melbourne* in 1966 is an example.

I am intrigued. What happened to the data? Why was it collated? Were sightings recorded because whales were sometimes misidentified as submarines? Or to provide information on the state of whale populations? Did other navies, the Royal Navy, for example, impose a similar duty on ships’ captains to report the sightings of whales?

Apart from being intrigued I was educated and amused by the Reports of Proceedings of the various ships. The monthly reports from H.M.A.S. Sydney (Captain G.C. Oldham DSC; later Rear Admiral George Carmichael Oldham CBE, DSC, RAN) are a delight and this paragraph gives some idea of the flavour.

Rear Admiral G.C. Oldham CBE, DSC, RAN
H.M.A.S Sydney

By contrast, the captain of the Melbourne seems to have been a very dull fish; no whale reports either.

*I chose H.M.A.S. Melbourne in 1966 from the list available online because we had seen the ship, an aircraft carrier like Sydney, but acting as a troop transport between Australia and Vietnam, enter Hong Kong harbour and come alongside the north wall of the naval dockyard. That manoeuvre did not seem, to those of us watching from the Peak, to go so smoothly as might be implied from the Captain’s report when read 50 years later.