Alex Costie: Westray’s last whaler

If you’re fed up with life and want to leave your hame, just get down to Bernard Street and give Salvesen your name.

Westray islander Alex Costie was one of the last Orcadians to go whaling in the South Atlantic, spending a season there through 1960-61, two years before the effective end of the Antarctic whaling fisheries in 1963.

Alex was following a long line of Orcadians, including his predecessor
Doddie Drever, who sailed south with the Norwegian firm Christian Salvesen in 1938. Both Aaks [Auks] – in Orkney, Westray islanders are referred to as ‘Auks’- braved Antarctic waters to hunt the world’s largest mammals.

Alex Costie and shipmate on the Venture, Leith, South Georgia. Date: 1961-62
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Alex Costie

The turmoil of the seamen’s strike of 1960 had left many in maritime communities facing an uncertain future and eager to find work, often far from home. Around this time, Alex had been working on Orkney ferries Thorfinn and Sigurd and was aiming to get his second mate’s ticket with more sea time abroad.

He spent an unsuccessful period working on a passenger ship, operating from Southampton, where he was far from impressed with the standards of sea craft of some of the other crew:

I didn’t like many of the crew. They were very poor and unqualified and we ended up doing much of the work. I came home and went to work at the creels for a while, but fishing wasn’t a reserved occupation while the Merchant Navy was, and I would have been called up into the army for National Service. I had no ambitions that way so I went back to Leith [Docks, Edinburgh].

Alex Costie, Westray, 2018

There he signed up with Salvesens in Leith for a season of whaling on board the Southern Venture. While on stand-by, waiting for the ship to go through a refit, Alex worked with a team of “lumpers” [stevedores or dockworkers] and was amused to hear them singing sea shanties while they worked.

The Southern Venture picked up crew and supplies and made its way across the Atlantic to Aruba to collect oil for Salvesens’ headquarters in another Leith Harbour: Leith, South Georgia. Alec remembers the reception in Aruba:

In Aruba there was another [whaling] factory ship in. It was like Kirkwall on Ba’ day with wood covering the windows of the bars and shops. We were allowed ashore for just three hours. There were even machine guns at either end of the street. I didn’t think much of that place.

Alex Costie, Westray, 2018

The Southern Venture arrived in South Georgia a few weeks later, tying up alongside makeshift wharves in Leith Harbour. Alex recalls his accommodation at the Salveson station:

I was surprised by the digs there. The accommodation I’d been living in in Westray was quite poor so the housing in South Georgia was a step up. I saw a coloured bathroom suite for the first time in my life.

Alex Costie, Westray, 2018

The landscape also caught Alex’s attention, while there were impressive sights at sea, some a reminder of home in Orkney:

 Leith, South Georgia. Date: 1961-62
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Alex Costie

There was a huge glacier that came down from the mountains in South Georgia almost to the shore which was something I’d never seen. At sea there were huge icebergs, some would take 40 hours to steam around. There was one I saw from the deck one day that reminded me of the view from our house at North Cubbigoe in Westray when I was a child. The iceberg looked just like the island of Rousay. It was a similar size too.

Alex Costie, Westray, 2018

Detail of the flensing of a whale, Leith, South Georgia. Date: 1961-62
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Alex Costie

Alex’s experience as a winchman served him well on board the Southern Venture where they hunted sperm whales at first then mostly fin whales, processing the whale carcasses on the large deck of the whaling ship.

After a quiet spell on board, in which, Alex says “the mate told us to line the ship’s rail and look out for whales – just to give us something to do”, the crew spotted a school of blue whales which gave the ship a sizeable haul, but soon Alex was questioning his future in whaling:

We spotted a school of 33 blue whales. We killed 30 that day and three the next. You didn’t have to be very bright to see that there wasn’t much future in that kind of work.

Alex Costie, Westray, 2018
Whale carcasses floating alongside a whaling ship, South Georgia. Date: 1961-62
Whales were harpooned with an explosive grenade, then inflated with air before being floated back to the factory ships.
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Alex Costie

With Norwegian seamen’s union rules also preventing non-Norwegians earning promotion to senior roles onboard, Alex decided to call it a day after one season in the Antarctic, returning to fishing in Orkney and also, in a time before current restrictions, catching seals for their skins.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

Alex’s memories of whaling in the South Atlantic are recorded and kept in the archives at the Westray Heritage Centre, where Doddie Drever’s account of his experiences in the South Atlantic in the late 1930s are also kept. Visit the Westray heritage Centre website by clicking here.

Find out more about the history and heritage of the pelagic whaling industry in South Georgia at the South Georgia Heritage Trust website by clicking here.

Find out more about aspects of Shetland’s martime heritages relating to the Arctic whaling fisheries of the 18th and 19th centuries by clicking here.

Find out about crafts made by South Atlantic whalers from Shetland while working in South Georgia by clicking here.

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