The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1973, Volume 19, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

Men and Whales at Scammon’s Lagoon. By David A. Henderson. Baja California Travel Series, #29. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1972. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 313 pages. $24.00.

Reviewed by W. Michael Mathes, Associate Professor of History at the University of San Francisco. Dr. Mathes has published widely on the history of Baja California and on Spanish maritime history. Among his published works is Vizcaino and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean: 1580-1630.

As volume 29 of the Baja California Travels Series, edited by Glen Dawson and Edwin Carpenter, Professor David Henderson has prepared a study of hunting for the Pacific Gray Whale off the coast of the Peninsula, with particular attention to the area of Laguna Scammon (Scammon’s Lagoon). This book departs from the norm of the series in two instances: it is much larger than previously published titles, and it is not documentary in content but is rather a study based upon primary and secondary sources.

In the introduction a general background of Pacific whaling from 1780 to 1820 is premated, followed in the second chapter with a treatise on the habitat, feeding, migration and behavior of the gray whale. Chapter three is an overview of the topography and ecology of Scammon’s Lagoon.

The history of whaling, as well as other industry at Scammon’s Lagoon, is dealt with in chapters four through eight. The use of the lagoon by the aboriginal inhabitants of the region, based upon the reports of Jesuit missionary priests Sigismundo Taraval (1732), Fernando Consag (1751) and Wenceslaus Linck (1764), is treated in chapter four, while a rather sketchy view of Spanish exploration of the area and early reports of whales is given in chapter five. The reports of Sebastián Rodriguez Cermeño’s use of a stranded whale on Isla San Martin in 1595, the reports of ambergris in the area of Scammon’s Lagoon by Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602, and the journals of seventeenth century pearl fishermen in the Gulf of California would have amplified this chapter considerably.

The strength of the book lies in chapter six, which accounts for a large part of the text (pp. 81-214). An extensive treatise on whaling and allied enterprises from 1845 to 1873, with particular attention to the expeditions of Charles Melville Scammon, is presented along with data relative to the catches, oil yield and decline of the whale population in the lagoon. Chapter seven comprises a brief biography of Scammon and his work.

The final chapter treats the exploitation of the lagoon in the post-whaling era when it served as a source of sea turtles, orchilla dye, and salt, and as an area of great value for the study of marine biology. An appendix of tables relative to gray whale catches, ships at the lagoon, quantities of oil recovered, captains of vessels, and the voyages of Scammon out of San Francisco follow the text. The volume includes a very extensive and complete bibliography relative to the whaling period from 1845 to 1900, as well as three excellent maps and an analytical index.

This book is well researched on the whaling era of the nineteenth century and is of great value as a source of data for that period. Unfortunately it lacks the descriptive flavor which would most certainly be evident had the logs and diaries of the various whalers been included with appropriate annotations. It is hoped that such is planned by Professor Henderson for future volumes. As in the case of all other volumes in the series, Men and Whales at Scammon’s Lagoon is beautifully designed, printed and bound.