‘the Scene Of Slaughter Was Exceedingly Picturesque’

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In the late summer of 1857, Charles Melville Scammon, captain of the 181-ton brig Boston , presented his crew with a dangerous proposition. Their voyage, he reminded them, had thus far failed to yield a single barrel of oil or a single sealskin. If the ship returned empty to its home port of San Francisco, there would be no bonus money for the men. Their eight-month contracts were about to expire; what Scammon wanted them to do was to extend their tours and follow the migrating gray whales to a hitherto undiscovered breeding lagoon on the coast of Baja California, in Mexico.

The crew of the Boston agreed, but not without hesitation. Hunting the slow-moving grays in the confines of a shallow lagoon might appear tame compared with the hazards of open-sea whaling, but it was not without hazards of its own: many a tombstone in the cemeteries of New England whaling ports bore the inscription “Killed While Lagoon Whaling.”

Scammon was well aware of the perils, but he was also on the verse of devising a new method of whaling that would reduce “gray fishing” to grim efficiency. In the process he would touch off one of the bloodiest eras in whaling history. Yet Scammon was no ordinary whaling captain. He took a scientist’s interest in the animals he hunted; before he was through, he would assemble a pioneer scientific treatise which would establish him as one of the foremost mammalogists of his age—and which would constitute a useful beginning for modern scientists seeking to prevent the total extinction of the majestic gray whale. In whaling’s heyday the gray, named for the spots that dapple its immense black body, was not a commercially prized species. Its blubber yielded no more than forty barrels of oil—half the yield of a sperm or a bowhead; and its baleen (the tufted gums that filter the animal’s diet of plankton) was too coarse to be used commercially as whalebone for corsets and buggy whips.

But hunting the gray had its advantages. Most large whale species, in retreating from the plankton pastures of the polar seas in late fall, steer clear of coastal waters and head instead for off-island breeding grounds in the open ocean: the Azores, Madagascar, or Micronesia. As a result, the New England whalers were forced to pursue creatures faster and larger than their own ships through gales, dead calms, and uncharted seas. But the gray whale breeds in a much more convenient locale; from the Arctic it swims six thousand miles due south to the warm and placid coastal lagoons of Baja California. Here, hemmed in by constricting shores, the grays could he harpooned in large numbers and their blubber flensed and tried out under a pleasant desert sun. This colossal opportunity had only to be effectively exploited.

In the winter of 1846, a New England whaling ship, waiting for the summer sun and the return of the whales to northern waters, had anchored in Magdalena Bay on the Baja California coast. Spacious lagoons indented the bay’s shore line, and the astonished crew saw countless whale spouts rising above the calm blue surface of the water. The whaler, herself in hibernation, had stumbled across a major breeding ground of the gray whale. A killing spree promptly ensued.

At first lagoon whaling, soon dubbed “the mudhole season,” was merely a diversion for the oft-season. But such a patronizing description in no way obscured the dangers involved; for if the gray whale was particularly vulnerable to a harpoon in the confined space of his breeding ground, the harpooners themselves were just as vulnerable to the survival tactics of a tormented whale. At sea, a harpooned whale tended to run and “sound,” that is, dive for the bottom, in the hope of shaking loose the whaleboat at the end of the harpoon line. Shallow lagoons thwarted this tactic and forced the gray whale to meet its adversaries head on. Since the grays could maneuver much more quickly than the whaleboats, the pursuers could suddenly find themselves the object of pursuit. Sometimes a wounded era y would corner its tormentors and ram their wooden craft. At other times, a whale’s mighty flukes would clear the water and come crashing down on the luckless crew in a devastating tactic called “lobtailing.” Other species of whales resorted to these direct tactics only occasionally; the grays had to rely on them constantly and soon acquired considerable cunning. Sometimes the harpoon line would suddenly go slack. The perplexed crew would look over the side of the boat to see where the whale was, but the waters would be murky with mud and sand churned up by their quarry. Then, in a frightful flash, the men would feel their boat being lifted clear of the water and a moment later find themselves hurtling through the air. The whale, playing possum, had waited for the lagoon current to bring the boat overhead and then had lashed upward with its flukes in a kind of reverse lobtail.