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‘the Scene Of Slaughter Was Exceedingly Picturesque’
Trapped in its Baja California breeding lagoons, the gray whale was almost harpooned out of existence. Today the growing herd is faced with a different threat that is perhaps just as dangerous
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
The gray’s ferocity began destroying the reputations of many bonus mates, boatheaders who received extra pay in recognition of their skill in hunting whales. After a luckless encounter with a gray, one mate returned forlornly to his ship and reported to the captain, a well-known New Bedford skipper named Simmons, ihat there “ain’t enough left of the whaling boat to kindle the cook’s fire.” Simmons reminded his mate in no uncertain terms that he was being paid to “turn up” whales, not to reduce the ship’s valuable complement of whaleboats. “I shipped to go a-whaling,” complained the frustrated mate. “I’d no idea of beiii’ required to go into a duck pond to whale after spotted hyenas. Why, Cap’n, these here critters ain’t whales.” Then what were they? Simmons inquired. “I have a strong notion that they are a cross ‘tween a sea-serpent and an alligator,” declared the disgruntled bonus mate.
Mistaking a calf for an adidt whale frequently resulted in loss of life as well as reputation. After interviewing Captain J. L. Eddy, a veteran of lagoon whaling, a correspondent of the Wilmington, Delaware, Journal reported: “Woe to the boats if they kill the young one first. The mother rushes at them with the utmost fury and stoves them in with her flukes. Such is the female devil; and Captain Eddy says as many men are lost in catching them as in all the other whaling grounds put together.”
This bad press acted to the gray’s temporary advantage, for whaling captains were loath to pit their men and boats against the “devilfish” or the “hardhead.” The more fearless—or reckless—among them who did hunt during the mudholc season sought to discourage possible competitors by embellishing tales of the gray’s known ferocity. One captain invariably sailed into Honolulu with a stove boat prominently displayed on his main deck. Once ashore, with a few lots of rum under his belt, the captain would recount how one of his novice harpouners had darted a calf by mistake. The mother promptly charged, and the nervous occupants of the boat, including the captain, barely managed to beach the craft on the lagoon shore. But still they were not safe. The distraught harpoonist shouted, “Cap’n, the old whale is after us still,” and ran into the desert. “I then told all hands,” declared the grinning captain, “to climb trees.”
For a decade after its inital discovery, then, lagoon whaling remained a limited diversion. Hut the supply of bowheads and sperms was not unlimited, and by 185;) the industrious New England whaling fleet was under increasing pressure to confront the devilfish and to locate more of the lagoons where it bred.
“Being on the coast of California in 18^2, when the ‘gold lever’ raged,” Scammon later explained, “the force of circumstances compelled me to take command of a brig, bound on a sealing, sea-elephant and whaling voyage, or abandon sea life, at least temporarily.” Only twenty-seven at the time, Scammon was already an alert, experienced, and knowledgeable man of the sea. Born in Maine into the family of a Methodist preacher who doubled as treasurer of the township, he had been raised in comfortable surroundings in which a love of learning was encouraged. One of his brothers, Eliakim, became a Union general who numbered James Garfield and William McKiiiley among his subordinates during the Civil War. Another brother, Jonathan, became a Chicago railroad financier and a prime mover in the city’s public school system. Charles’s avocations were reading, sketching, and writing poetry for his invalid sister, but he decided to make his living on the sea. As in the case of another New Englander, Herman Melville, this dual temperament eventually enabled Scammon to rccognixc that whales had much more than commercial significance.
Scammon’s nautical career began in the coastal trade, transporting turpentine, peanuts, and resin up and down the eastern seaboard. It was not gold that brought him to California, but rather the opportunities for promotion to merchant master. A scarcity of berths, however, forced him into whaling, and he soon became the chief whaling captain for A. L. Tubbs and Company, the San Francisco branch of a Boston wholesale house. Scammon’s wife and son came to San Francisco to settle; occasionally they accompanied the head of the family on a whaling expedition.