When Nova Scotia hunted the whales

A few decades ago, the government tried to create a whaling industry. The province’s first and only whale gunner recalls his experiences

Gaby d’Entremont’s first attempt to harpoon a whale was a disaster.

“It was cruel what happened,” he recalls. “I hate to think about it.” The crew of the Cape Mary had been out all day off Nova Scotia’s southwest coast searching for minke and fin whales. Finally, just before dark they spotted a pod. When the lookout shouted “Whale!” from the crow’s nest, d’Entremont jumped from his bunk and scurried to the deck to man the gun.

He had never used a whale harpoon. “We had no training,” recalls the 84-year-old fisherman. “We just learned day by day.” The first day was the toughest for the new crew.

In the summer of 1965, with a Federal fisheries grant, the wooden fishing vessel Cape Mary was outfitted with a crow’s nest and a 50mm harpoon gun. It was part of a speculative venture by the government to kickstart a whaling industry in the province. It caught a few folks by surprise, given that whaling in Nova Scotia had been nonexistent, other than a brief seven-year stint by the Quakers from Nantucket (1785–1792).

But then in 1964, Nova Scotia’s whale hunt resurfaced. The Blandford Whaling Station, owned by Norwegian Karl Karlson and Co. Ltd., showed that hunting whales off Nova Scotia was profitable.

During peak production the Norwegian boats landed 361 whales (fin and sei), a value of $750,000. The oil from the whales was used in lubricants, lamps, detergents, and soaps. The meat and bone meal were used for pet food, cattle and chicken feed, as well as human consumption.

When Comeau Seafoods acquired its whale license, workers overhauled the Cape Mary, and chose Harvey d’Eon as its captain. He picked his entire crew from West Pubnico. Gaby d’Entremont became the gunner, Nova Scotia’s first and only whale gunner. (Previously, only American and Norwegians had commercially hunted whales here.)

“You have to shoot a whale in the right place,” d’Entremont says. “It’s a small target.” He draws the tidy outline of a small whale, circling an area behind the fin and adding an arrow pointing to the spot. “That’s where the heart and liver is.”

A harpooned whale will dive immediately. When it comes up again, there’s an easy way to tell if you hit the target. “If it’s blowing blood through its blowhole you hit it in the right place. In about 10 to 15 minutes you’ve got it tied up.”

But if the whaler missed that spot, it wasn’t so easy. “If you just hit it in the back, it’s like putting a harness on it,” d’Entremont explains. That’s exactly what happened with his first whale. “I put seven harpoons in its back, because we didn’t know what we were doing.” Finally, the eighth harpoon hit the target.

It’s a difficult memory. “It was wrong,” d’Entremont says. “But we just didn’t know.”

His marksmanship improved. After that first grisly experience, he never missed again. On one occasion he remembers shooting over smaller whales to get a bigger one. “I saw this huge one in the middle of a pod, and I waited for it to come up, and I had to shoot over two.”

D’Entremont is soft-spoken and earnest. He seems neither proud nor ashamed of the job. He brings out a large, empty brass harpoon shell and places it on the table. He continues recounting his experience as whale gunner. “You had to be pretty close; around 100 feet to hit that spot I was talking about,” he says. “Then, if it came up with blood in the spout, you knew it wouldn’t be long. It was kind of cruel.”

The gun bolted to the boat had a vee on its barrel to sight the whale. d’Entremont’s job was to target the diving whale at the crux of the vee before firing. “A whale is a very tame animal and they just go up and down,” he says. “After a while you get accustomed to their movement, and you just go right with them.”

When the gun was fired it rattled the dishes in the galley. “It was something I’ll never forget. I loved to shoot the gun against the wind and the black powder would come back in my face,” d’Entremont admits, surprising even himself. “And I’m not a hunter as such; that’s the strange part. My brothers were, but I wasn’t.”

Looking back, d’Entremont doesn’t know if he was a good shot. “I don’t know,” he says. “There was nobody to compete with.” After it was killed, the whale was tied alongside the boat and towed to Saulnierville where it was dressed. “The crew chopped it up,” d’Entremont says. “That was the hard part. It was strenuous work and we were not prepared, but we did it.”

It would take eight hours for six men to reduce a five-metre whale to workable pieces. Using flensing knives, they removed the blubber in long wide strips. They cut the meat into manageable chunks and froze them. Afterward, they towed the remainder of the carcass out to sea to sink in deep water, away from the fishing grounds.

The work site in Saulnierville concerned the health department. Officials wanted a covered facility built to house the whale when it came in. This proved too costly for Comeau Seafoods and the Cape Mary’s short-lived whaling mission ended that same summer. They killed and harvested 33 whales.

Afterward, the Cape Mary went back to fishing, and the whale gun went in Captain Harvey d’Eon’s backyard, where it rests today, a near forgotten relic of Nova Scotia’s brief whaling history.

A federal moratorium officially ended commercial whaling in Canada in 1972.

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