Bits and pieces of fossilized whale bone lie scattered along the cobble stone studded beaches of California. The petrified skeletal remnants date back over twenty million years in some instances. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the innumerable environmental obstacles overcome in their evolutionary journey through the eons to survive into the modern era. Then after millions of years of enduring the elements and rigors of life in nature’s arena of competition, humans nearly forced the extinction of some species through commercial whaling. A half century later whales are still recovering only to face new threats.
“He’s a hundred barreler—don’t lose him now. . .There goes three thousand dollars, men!—a bank!—a whole bank! The bank of England!”- Herman Melville Moby Dick
As whales ceased to be a subsistence resource used sparingly and became objects of commercial value aggressively pursued at sea, their populations declined precipitously. They served as floating warehouses providing the raw materials used to produce a long list of goods including lamp fuel, lubricant for machinery, soap, margarine, corsets, hoop skirts, umbrellas, steel, automatic transmission fluid, and even explosives. In the mid 1850s a particular method of whaling appeared in California called shore whaling. Although not all in simultaneous operation, a total of 26 stations dotted the coastline from border to border. Small companies operated out of seaside camps in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara Counties. The main catch was gray whales, but occasional humpbacks and blues were also taken north of Point Conception.
Shore whaling was a dangerous affair; a mortal fight between 200 pound men in a puny skiff and 30 ton leviathans. A six-man crew in a 14 foot wooden rowboat used hand thrown harpoons and a coil of hempen rope; the ultimate spear fishing experience and an ocean adventure like few others. In an historical account a veteran describes feelings of “uncontrollable terror” as the boat approached a whale just prior to the strike. The crew rowed or sailed aside the behemoths, a man threw the harpoon, and an intense battle ensued in which the whale or men may be killed. One old man reminiscing about his experiences during the 1860s described gray whales as “almost sure death to hunt.” He told of “a good many graves in those days alongshore of men who had been killed by those whales.”
The second the iron harpoon struck, the giant mammals thrashed wildly sometimes smashing the boat to pieces. Local newspapers often reported on the battles between men and whales. In 1870, the Monterey Democrat published an account of an incident. Upon harpooning a gray whale the boat “got unawares within the sweep of the leviathan’s tail,” which slammed down and “crushed like an eggshell the timbers of its bow.” The captain was “struck in the side by a fragment of the broken timbers and was almost paralyzed” before regaining his senses. While gray whales were especially fierce blue whales were no less dangerous. In 1875, the Monterey Weekly Herald published a story titled “Combat with a Whale,” which described a blue whale capsizing two boats in Monterey Bay. A nearby fishing vessel rescued the crew. The Santa Cruz Sentinel chronicled the incident relating how the whale “turned upon his pursuers” and “beat the sea into a foam and demolished the frail craft.” Such harrowing stories were not uncommon.
At other times whales bolted pulling the harpoon rope out of the boat at such furious speed blue smoke peeled into the air as it slid through the metal guide on the bow. Occasionally the rope wrapped around a man’s leg or arm thrashing him across the inside of the boat and into the sea to his demise. Once the rope reached its end, the boat leapt forward with a tremendous jerk “at a rate that would put a locomotive to blush,” wrote a reporter for the Monterey Weekly Herald in 1874. Speeds topped 20 miles an hour as the bow slammed through the chop sending spray flying. The crew bailed water. A man astern steered with an oar. And one man sat ready to cut the rope if the whale sounded threatening to drag the small boat under. Typically crews stayed within ten miles of shore, but whales fought for hours at times pulling boats far out to sea. One report tells of a crew from L.A. County having to hunker down on the Channel Islands for the night before setting out for the mainland. Crossing the channel while dragging a carcass was brutally slow with the average speed recorded at a measly one mile per hour.
By the 1860s a noticeable decrease in the number of captured whales was already evident. In 1865, the Monterey County assessor reported that “for the last two seasons whales have become very scarce.” The declining catch was due in part to fewer whales and a change in migratory habits in response to constant harassment along the coast. Gray whales stayed farther offshore. In 1874, Charles Scammon, who discovered the gray whale breeding grounds off the Mexican coast, reported that those that remained near shore in California were skittish and “exceedingly wild and difficult to approach.” The whale populations plummeted to such an extent that in the same year the Monterey Weekly Herald reported that “the whale fishery. . .is likely to become a thing of the past.” Yet, whaling continued unabated.
Shore whalers developed harpoon guns allowing them to strike from greater distances. More effective mechanized systems were developed including steam powered ships armed with massive deck mounted canons. With no concern for the sustainability of the fishery whales appeared doomed. Few people seemed to care. Just after the turn of the century, Roy Chapman Andrews, a celebrated naturalist with the American Museum of Natural History, wrote that the “wholesale slaughter of the whales will inevitably result in their early commercial extinction.” Despite the warning signs many more years passed before whaling was regulated. In a remarkable comment reflecting how serious the situation had become, Andrews later noted of gray whales that “for over twenty years the species had been lost to science and naturalists believed it to be extinct.”
Then a reprieve was finally granted. In 1938, the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling banned the killing of gray whales among member nations. Although the hunting of other species continued, the landmark agreement signaled a sea change in popular sentiment. Additional international agreements followed. In 1966, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned the commercial hunting of blue and humpback whales among member nations setting them, too, on a slow path to recovery. The United States subsequently implemented the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts. The international agreements are based on good faith and effectively unenforceable and not all nations participate. The combined efforts, however, provided whales the protections needed to return from near extinction.
In 1994, the U.S. federal government removed California gray whales from the U.S. list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Blue and humpback whales remain endangered, but their numbers are increasing. “Blue whales aren’t recovering as fast as grays, but we do see a recovery,” said Michelle Berman, assistant curator of vertebrate zoology at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. “The humpback population is growing at about seven percent a year,” she said. “That’s a pretty strong return and a great tribute to the protection they’ve been given.” There has been some consideration of delisting humpbacks from the endangered species category. “It’s quite a success story,” Berman noted. “Marine mammals in general are really resilient animals,” she said. This fortunate attribute afforded humankind the chance to correct past errors in the overexploitation of these magnificent creatures. Perhaps going forward their protection can be proactive rather than reactive.
Looking Toward the Future
Whales are no longer hunted along the Central Coast, but they do die unnecessarily from incidental causes. Increasing levels of marine debris and ship traffic pose potential threats. In 2007, ships struck and killed three blue whales in a single month in the Santa Barbara Channel. Although alarming, Berman described it as an “anomalous year” brought about by large amounts of krill, which lured the mammals into the shipping lane. A tagging project is currently underway to study how whales respond to ships. In 2008, a sperm whale washed ashore near Point Reyes. A necropsy conducted by the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito revealed 450 pounds of marine debris in its stomach. Dr. Frances Gulland, Director of Veterinary Science, described the incident at the time as being “far from an isolated case.” Fortunately, these threats can be mitigated through scientific research and community effort to lessen our impact on the sea. We can act positively to protect whales without negatively impacting our quality of life.
The history of whales serves as a testament to their enduring nature and proof of the crucial role humanity plays in their lives for better or worse. The choice is ours. We may choose to be responsible stewards of the miraculous web of life surrounding us and ensure its survival. Or we can neglect our natural inheritance and through indifference or overexploitation ensure its ultimate demise. There was a time when the sea seemed to offer limitless abundance, fishing regulations were few or nonexistent and our impact on our surroundings was of little or no concern. That time has passed. The size of our population now demands we make hard choices. Lest the great outdoors deteriorate to such a poor state that it no longer provides a hospitable environment for the world’s creatures or what so many of us have grown to cherish. What choice will you make?
Published in print in the March 2010 issue of Deep Magazine. Available online at Deepzine.com.