Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beacon Island

One of the best known landmarks in Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route is the Beacon Isle Hotel.  Beacon Island is at the mouth of the Piesang River and has a history that goes back to 1771.  In that year the first navigational beacon was erected on the island.  The original was a square block of stinkwood, inscribed with the latitude and longitude of Plettenberg Bay, and erected to enable mariners to check their location and chronometers.  It also gave Beacon Island its name.  The wooden beacon was replaced by Captain Sewell with a stone one in 1881 and has been replaced a couple of times over the years.  It can be seen in the gardens of the hotel.

Whaling in the bay was started by John Sinclair with the first cargo of whale oil leaving the shores of Plettenberg Bay in 1834.  A number of other men continued to whale in the bay, but it was Cornelius Watson and Percy Toplis who managed to obtain the first lease to use Beacon Island as a whaling station.  In 1908 the Thesen family of Knysna bought the whaling station from Toplis and invested heavily into what they hoped would be a lucrative whaling business.   

Over an 8-year period, they brought in seven whaling steamers from Norway, a meat boiling plant, an electric-lighting plant and a team of renowned Norwegian whalers.  Unfortunately their operation didn't last long and whaling was halted in 1916.  The Norwegians had underestimated the whaling potential of the bay and World War I prevented the export of oil to England during that period.  One of the original iron pots used to boil the whale blubber can still be seen on the grounds of the hotel along with a couple of harpoons.

When the Norwegians took over the whaling station they imported a house from Norway which was occupied by the project manager Captain Jacob Odland.  The house remained when whaling ceased and became Hopwood’s boarding house, a forerunner of the Angler’s Inn.  The first Beacon Island Hotel was erected by Hugh Owen Grant in 1940 and the present hotel was built in 1972.

While I was trawling the internet for information on Beacon Island, I found the picture above on The Van Plettenberg Historical Society website of it as it was during the hub of whaling operations (1913-16).