Former whaling captain Kase Van Der Gaag.
Former whaling captain Kase Van Der Gaag.

Back when the thrill of the hunt still sang in his blood and his harpoon shot straight and true, out on the deep waters straddling the continental shelf, Captain Kase Van Der Gaag came face to face with his Moby Dick.

It was the early 1970s, when the last of the Australian whalers plied their bloody trade in tempestuous waters south of Albany, and Mr Van Der Gaag and his crew were on the hunt.

A veteran whale chaser, Mr Van Der Gaag's ship the Cheynes II was closing in on a pod of sperm whales.

No strangers to the brutal code of the oil and blubber business, the 17 sailors aboard readied the ship's 150-pound harpoon, the explosive charge in its tip loaded for the kill.

But something went wrong.

Usually, the great cetaceans would retreat beneath the waves, tails kicking up as they dived deep.

On that day one whale did the unexpected.

"We were chasing some cows and a bull," Mr Van Der Gaag recalled.

"But the bull stopped. He turned around and he swam straight towards the ship.

"His nose was out of the water and his mouth was wide open."

Mick Stubbs with his Albany collection. Picture: Michael Wilson

Maw gaping in challenge, the 20m long leviathan set on a collision course with Mr Van Der Gaag's oil-fired steam ship, huge teeth jutting from his massive lower jaw.

"It was probably the biggest whale I've ever seen," Mr Van Der Gaag said.

Sperm whales were valuable because of the oil extracted from their cranium - used for everything from greasing gearboxes to lubricating rocket parts.

Mr Van Der Gaag said if he had shot the whale in the head, too much of the precious substance would have been lost.

So he turned his ship and an epic chase ensued.

At least seven times the bull eluded the turning vessel, repeatedly diving under the hull where the sonar couldn't track him.

Mick Stubbs and his father Ches with the first whale caught after WWII.

And then, when the cows had made good their escape, impossibly the big bull disappeared.

"I didn't get him," Mr Van Der Gaag said. "I didn't get him and I'm glad I didn't get him. He deserved to live. They all deserve to live."

It is more than 30 years since Australia stopped whaling.

And the 81-year-old retired whale chaser believes it is time Japan stopped whaling, too.

Sitting in the kitchen of his old crew mate, 71-year-old former whaler Mick Stubbs, Mr Van Der Gaag said there were only a handful of the old chasers left in WA.

All the men he knew wanted the Japanese to stop the killing.

In 1977, Mr Van Der Gaag quit his job at Australia's last operational whaling station at Frenchman Bay in Albany, a year before the nation's oldest primary industry was axed by the Fraser government.

Though he loved the sea and the thrill of the chase, the killing had always sickened Mr Van Der Gaag.

"Nobody knew much about whales back then (in the 1970s,)" he said.

"Now we know they talk to each other, they sing to each other, they live in families. We didn't know.

"But it (hunting whales) was and is cruel. There is no humane way of killing them."

Mr Stubbs' lounge room is like a boneyard.

The helm of a chaser from the whaling station in Albany sits surrounded by ivory white whale teeth.

The walls are adorned with photos of renowned WA whaler Ches Stubbs - Mick's father - who famously lost a leg during a harpoon accident and went back to work four months later.

Mr Stubbs, whose father showed him his first whale carcass in Frenchman Bay when he was four, said back in the old days whaling was a good job that paid well.

"It was a way of life back then," he said. "I wouldn't go back to it now though."

Mr Stubbs was on the hunt when the last whale was killed by Australians - a female sperm taken off the coast of Albany on November 20, 1978.

These days, Mr Stubbs sits on his driveway overlooking King George Sound and watches the humpbacks come in to play.

Mr Van Der Gaag said he still sometimes mulled over the great escape of the whale that was his Moby Dick.

"The one who got away," he said. "He could still be out there." Mr Van Der Gaag smiled at the thought.

Ches Stubbs whaling off Albany in the 1970s.

The West Australian

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