Our museums and archives are temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Silver Dons, 1833-1865

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Chasing the Whale

The fur ships which had opened the sea routes to California, and which had played such important roles in the Americanization of San Diego, long ago had ceased putting out from Boston. Though hides still made up part of the coastal commerce, the vivid days of the regular visits of the Boston hide ships had ended and the large barns at La Playa made famous by Dana had virtually disappeared. But in their wake the whaling ships turned to hunt­ing the California gray whales and once again the names of New England and the old colonial ports, New Bedford, Nantucket, Sag Harbor, and New London were heard in San Diego. The rising prosperity of the United States in the 1800’s had created more demands for oil and for spermacetic candles, and for whalebone for stays, corsets and umbrella ribs.

The California gray whale is medium-sized, thirty-five to forty feet long, and it was discovered that each winter they migrated from the western Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean to the warm water bays and lagoons of Upper and Lower California, passing near the shore, and upon occasion they put into San Diego Bay in such numbers that they were menaces to small boats.

At first San Diego saw itself as a chief supply port for the Pacific whaling fleet, and for a time there was a considerable traffic in and out of the harbor of whalers whose cruises to the Pacific lasted as long as three years. As had the fur and hide ships, the whalers brought the goods of New York and New England to barter for food and repairs. However, the practice of shore whaling was de­veloped in 1851, and a few years later whaling stations were established along the coast, including two in San Diego Bay.

It will be recalled that in 1848 the purser of the sloop USS Cyane, operating with United States forces in attacks on Lower California, had sighted a large fleet of whaling ships wintering in Magdalena Bay, which is 177 miles south of San Diego, and that the captains had reported finding a new species of whale, which, though rather small, yielded a fine quality of oil.

Terrifying tales of killing whales in shallow and narrow waters circulated throughout the whaling fleet, and a few years passed before coastal whaling was taken up seriously. C. M. Scammon, as captain of whaling barks which frequently put into San Diego, later wrote “The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America,” and in this he tells:

“But with all the warnings and direful tales, Magdalena Bay whaling was resumed with ardor about the years 1855 and 1856, and was continued and extended along the whole coast of both Upper and Lower California. Every navigable lagoon of the region was discovered and explored, and the animals were hunted in every winding and intricate estuary which were their resorting or breeding places. In the seasons of 1858 and 1859, not only the bays and lagoons were teeming with all the varied incidents of the fishery, but the out­side coast was lined with ships, from San Diego southward to Cape St. Lucas. A few vessels of this fleet cruised near the shore by day, standing a little way off at night; but by far the largest number anchored about the islands, points, and capes, wherever the animals could be most successfully pursued.”

The whaling ships too often were virtual prisons for crewmen who had longed for adventure or unfortunately had awakened one morning and found themselves lashed to a strange bunk. Charges levied against them for food, clothing and supplies usually ate up any earnings of years of danger and bone-tiring work. But the sight of sails has never failed to lift the hearts of men, and from the shores of San Diego and other whaling ports could be seen the gaily decorated sails of the small boats which were used to pursue the giant and formidable devil fish of the sea.

Scammon writes:

“It was a novel sight to view a single ship, or a small squadron, anchored off some exposed headland or island, rolling and surging at their cables in the ugly ground-swell, and the fleet of boats lying along the line of kelp just without the surf-bound shore, or, with their sails spread to the breeze, skimming over the waves in the various directions the gigantic game led them. At such times, a feature was observed in this fishery which is not often witnessed, namely: the peculiar marks or devices pictured upon the sails of the boats belonging to the different vessels. Some had a large cross covering the mainsail, while others would have the whole sail of blue, with a white jib or gaff-topsail. On another boat’s canvas would be figured one, two, or three balls; or stars, or crescents; or a large letter or number designated the ship to which they belonged. The diversity of colors, and the different tastes displayed in painting the boats, added another pleasing feature: some were pure white, others black, still others of a lead color; or fancifully striped with tri-colors, or with the bow red, blue, or green, while the rest of the craft would be of a contrasting shade. Sometimes a huge eye on either side of the stem, or a large circle, would be the designating mark; all these combined making up an extended group of dashing water-craft, especially pertaining to the California coast and fishery.”

Capt. Scammon is credited with discovering one of the principal breeding grounds of the California gray whales. This was Scam­mon’s Lagoon, an arm of Vizcaino Bay more than 300 miles south of San Diego. Another inlet is named after the whaling ship Black Warrior, a familiar sight of old San Diego, which was lost trying to force an entrance. An article printed in the Boston Journal of Commerce, and preserved in the Whaling Museum on Johnnycake Hill, in New Bedford, relates Scammon’s experiences:

“Capt. C. M. Scammon, whose name the lagoon has since borne, was in 1857 in command of the brig Boston owned by Tubbs & Co., of San Francisco. He had fitted out in the Spring for a cruise along the lower coast in search of whales, seals, and sea elephants. The pursuit in the open sea was unsuccessful. He had heard that a lagoon, as yet unknown to whalers, branched off inside the coast somewhere opposite to Cedros Island. If unknown, there was reason to believe that devil fish might be abundant, and he determined to explore it. The en­trance was made after not much more than the usual difficulty, and after a few days of preparation in wooding, etc., they were ready for work, and no better explanation of the peculiarities, the dangers and the successes of lagoon whal­ing can be given than to make a simple statement of what befell the crew and what they accomplished.

“The brig was taken as far up toward the head of the lagoon as the water would allow, and there anchored “for the season.” The sight about them was a remarkable one; the oldest whaleman of them all had never seen anything approaching it. The water in the channels was not over eighteen to twenty feet, and over most of the lagoon not six. But the whales! Whales to the right of them; whales to the left of them. One here close to the brig; one out there beyond the channel, where he cannot get his back under water any way, lying flapping his flukes and ready to shove himself off when he gets ready. It is no exaggera­tion to say that there were whales enough within sight at one time to load the ship with oil to her full capacity. But the oil, swimming through the lagoon, was not the same thing as though already in the casks, and that they speedily learned.”

The excitement of the first day almost turned to tragedy on the second. The crew took to their boats and two large cow whales were quickly killed:

“Their first experience was favorable. Two large cow whales were killed with­out difficulty, and every one was in high spirits accordingly. But the next day told a different story. Before the first whale was even struck, a whirl of his flukes sent the boat into splinters, broke one man’s leg, another man’s arm, and seriously injured three other men. As a relief boat hurried up to rescue the wounded, another devil fish passing along gave it a little tip by way of diver­tisement and boat number two was smashed. This was bad enough, five of the crew disabled, but this was not the worst of it. After waiting two days to allow the men time to recover from their excitement, a boat was again sent out, but though the crew pulled off as usual from the ship, yet no sooner did they approach a whale then every man dropped his oar and jumped overboard, utterly overcome with fear.”

The crew was demoralized. A way out of their difficulties was found by ambushing the whales in the narrow channels through which they passed to and from the lagoons. They were “bombed” from safe positions where the water was too shallow for the whales to attack. Every cask on the ship was filled. Every effort was made to retain the secret of the lagoon, but when they arrived the next season a whole fleet of whaleships appeared, and in a few years the lagoon had been “fished” out.

The first mention of a whaling station in San Diego appeared in the Herald in February of 1859:

“The company of whalemen at the Playa, in this bay, have killed about a dozen whales in the few weeks since they commenced operations, only five of which they have been able to get into port. These five yielded 150 barrels of oil, worth about $2000. If some means could be devised to prevent the whales from sinking, three or four parties could do a good business during the season, by catching whales within ten miles of the entrance to the harbor.”

The following month proved a profitable one, and five whales were taken in five days, and the Herald commented that “one hundred men might find profitable employment at whaling in our bay. . .” A week later the Herald announced that whaling already had become a profitable business with fifteen whales taken in a few weeks, and a fine quality of oil was being shipped directly to the Atlantic states, instead of to San Francisco deal­ers, and was bringing sixty to sixty-five cents a gallon in Boston and New York markets.

Two companies were in business on Ballast Point. Benjamin Hayes tells of visiting San Diego during the whaling season and though the populace seemed to be “without business, money or any visible prospect for the future, I have yet to see the first `sad’ man, woman or child. Withall a happy spirit of contentment pre­sides over their feelings.”

The whaling season lasted from December until April, and Hayes reported:

“The ship Ocean, Capt. Clark, is here; he has been here five weeks; has made 500 barrels of oil, from twelve whales. Capt. Alpheus Packard, who operates from Ballast Point, has taken 13 whales, yielding 450 barrels. Capt. Henry Johnson, also on Ballast Point, has made 200 barrels, from seven whales. Through last season, Capt. P. made 900 barrels. He thinks, the business will soon be destroyed, in consequence of the large number of ships that will come in, hearing of the success of the Ocean.”

Small boats put out from the shore stations and drew up along­side the migrating whales, much as the sightseeing boats from San Diego were to do a hundred years later, and Scammon des­cribes the process of killing:

“When the gunner fires, if he hits his game, the next effort made is to haul up near enough to shoot a bomb-lance into a vital part, which, if it explodes, com­pletes the capture; but, if the first bomb fails, the second or third one does the fatal work. The prize is then towed to the station; and if it be night, it is secured to one of the buoys placed for the purpose, a little way from the surf, where it remains until daylight, or until such time as it is wanted, to be stripped of its blubber. The whales generally taken by the shore parties are Humpbacks, and California Grays; but occasionally a Right Whale, a Finback, or a sulphur­-bottom is captured.”

When captured and towed ashore they were flensed, or stripped, much in the same manner, Scammon suggests, as was done by the New England whalers of more than a century and half before:

“At the point where the enormous carcass was stripped of its fat, arose the “whaling station,” where try-pots were set in rude furnaces, formed of rocks and clay, and capacious vats were made of planks, to receive the blubber. Large mincing-tubs, with mincing-horses and mincing-knives, cutting-spades, ladles, bailers, skimmers, pikes, and gaffs, with other whaling implements, surrounded the try-works; and nearby, a low structure covered with brush­wood, constituted the store-house for the oil. A light shanty, with four apartments, served the purpose of wash-room, drying-room, store-room, and cooper’s shop; and a sort of capstans, termed “crabs,” were used in lieu of the ship’s windlass …. which served to roll the massive forms of the captured animals on the beach during the process of flensing.”

Scammon had estimated that a thousand whales a day were passing along the coast, and while the hunting was to continue into the 70’s, their numbers were being swiftly reduced. For many years oily smoke drifted over San Diego from Ballast Point sta­tions but it blew away, along with the hopes for a new prosperity.