Law of the Tongue

By Gayne C. Young

He fished the coast of Australia for more than 40 years and in that time helped his employer earn millions of dollars. And for his trouble he was paid in all he could eat lips, tongues, and genitals.

His name was Old Tom, and he was a killer whale.

The story of Old Tom and “The Law of the Tongue” began in 1857 when Scottish immigrant to Australia Alexander Davidson, his son John, and grandson “Fearless” George, began a shore-based whaling operation near the town of Eden on the southern shore of Twofold Bay. The bay was—and still is—the third deepest natural harbor in the southern hemisphere and known as a coastal aggregation area for southern right whales (Eubalaena australis). This abundance of whales proved exceptional and helped establish the Davidsons’ business as the longest running shore-based whaling station in Australia. The only problem the Davidsons faced in those first years of operations was the killer whales.

The orcas (Orcinus orca) migrated from Antarctic waters to the bay each autumn in search of food—southern right whales. In their quest for such they got in the way of the Davidsons’ livelihood. The family of whalers considered them a nuisance and were especially bothered by one large killer whale who would breach and thrash his tail in the waters just in front of their headquarters building on a regular basis. The Davidsons’ attitude toward the orcas took a 180 degree turn however when they hired several indigenous Yuin people.

The Yuin quickly set the Davidsons straight. They explained that the orcas weren’t a hindrance but rather a help to their operation. They detailed that the Yuin (and several other people that historically called the area home) had been whaling the bay for more than 10,000 years and in that time the orcas had always helped by driving the right whales toward the shore and into easy range of the whalers. The killer whales let the humans know the prey had been driven deeper into the inlet by sending one representative to breach and thrash his tail in call. The orcas did this because they were actually descendants of long dead whalers.

Ok. Sure. Let’s go with that.

The orca that was currently doing this came to be known as Old Tom. He measured more than 22 feet in length and weighed an estimated six tons. In return for his and his pod’s assistance, according to the Yuin, the Davidsons were to follow the Law of the Tongue. This return for services involved tying a dead harpooned whale off to their boat or boats for a day and night so the pod could consume the whale’s tongue, lips, and the genital region. Those parts that the humans actually wanted—the blubber and bones—were left untouched and unharmed. In addition, Old Tom and his pod would often drive sharks away from the small open boats and even pull the boats by a rope toward their prey.

The Davidsons adhered to this arrangement for over three decades and in that time came to identify each member of the 20 plus member pod by their dorsal fins. The whales were named after fallen whalers. There was Stranger, Hooky, Humpy, Cooper, Young Ben, Sharkey, Walker, Big Jack, Little Jack, and a host of others over the years.

In 1901, a whale known as Typee became beached and was killed by a local. As a result, the Yuin quit the Davidsons and the pod rarely returned. Old Tom did, however, and continued helping the Davidsons in exchange for all the whale parts he liked to eat.

Until 1923.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, it was in that year that the Davidsons defaulted on the Law of the Tongue.

Old Tom helped the Davidsons by driving a small right whale to the surface in front of the whalers’ boat. The whale was harpooned but, as there was a storm coming and the Davidsons felt they’d lose the whale if they left it overnight for Old Tom, they started dragging it to shore. Old Tom became irate and began towing the boat further into the bay by the rope that tied the boat to the harpooned whale. A whaler named John Logan grew angry at the orca’s behavior and a game of tug of war with Old Tom ensued until a few of the orca’s teeth were yanked free and he fled. Old Tom’s gums became infected, and he slowly starved to death, ultimately washing up on shore.

Logan felt so guilty over the incident that he financed the Eden Killer Whale Museum. Old Tom’s bones sit on display in the museum to this day. 

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