- Historic Sites
‘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
They were not aboard the Boston , however, on her epic voyage in 1857 when Scammon talked his crew into trying lagoon whaling. No one had any illusions about the dangers ahead, least of all Scammon himself: in Magclalena Bay the season before, he had lost two boats altogether; the others were stove a total of fifteen times. Six of his crew were badly injured: one had both legs broken. But the experience did not discourage Scammon; rather, it inspired him. Now, having secured the agreement of the Boston ’s crew, he reprovisioned at Santa Catalina Island, rendezvoused with a small schooner sent down from San Francisco by Mr. Tubbs, and began to trail the migrating grays southward along the seven-hundrcd-mile Baja coastline. About halfway down, a desert headland extends into the Pacific to form the immense and open Sebastian Vizcaino Bay. Here the observant Scammon previously had seen gray whales, their blows ascending into the air like fountains, disappear—apparently into the desert. The schooner was dispatched to follow the coastline and search for an entrance to the lagoon. Two clays later, a messenger from the schooner reported the existence of an entrance large enough to accommodate the brig. The Boston got under sail and, helped through the narrow and shallow entrance by a providential breeze, soon found herself gliding on a large, placid lagoon some thirty-five miles long and up to eleven miles wide; it had no name. Fish, porpoises, green turtles, and waterfowl were in abundance, but there were only a few whales. Undaunted, Scammon decided that he had simply gotten there ahead of the main body of migrating grays.
While he waited he was not idle. He dispatched the Boston ’s four whaling boats to collect driftwood on the ocean side of the lagoon. This errand almost doomed the voyage. To protect the boats from the surf, the sailors tied them together and left them just inside the lagoon entrance in the care of a boatkeeper. After basking in the warm sun for a while, the sentry decided to pull the plug in one boat and cool off in an impromptu bathtub. The “bathtub” promptly became waterlogged and capsized, and the floundering boatkeeper abandoned the boats and swam for the safety of the shore. Soon the astonished driftwood collectors saw their sole means of pursuing whales drifting through the lagoon entrance into the Pacific on the outgoing tide. A few of them, strong-swimming Kanakas from Hawaii, desperately paddled through the surf on makeshift surfboards of planking. The ship’s carpenter, also a strong swimmer, joined the chase, which soon turned into a losing contest with the surf. The exhausted Kanakas managed to return to shore, but the carpenter was never seen again. The tragedy seemed complete until the tide changed and washed three of the boats back to shore. This sight, according to Scammon, evoked “a spontaneous cheer from the men.”
The boats were recovered just in time, for whales now began to appear in large numbers. Scammon was jubilant. “Two large cows were captured without difficulty, which gave all hands confidence in our ultimate success,” he noted in the ship’s log. This confidence crumbled the next day. Before a single whale could be harpooned, two of the three whaleboats were stove in by a succession of flashing flukes. The Boston ’s remaining boat and the schooner’s lone boat undertook to rescue men trying to keep afloat in the lagoon with fractured legs and twisted arms. Amidst this human carnage, a gray whale would casually emerge to blow and then slip back beneath the blue cover of the lagoon. “When the first boat arrived with her freight of crippled passengers, it could only be compared to a floating ambulance crowded with men—the uninjured supporting the helpless,” observed Scammon, who now found himself in command not of a whaling ship but of a hospital ship, and a crowded one at that. “No whaling was attempted,” he wrote, “as nearly half the crew were unfit for duty and a large portion of the rest were demoralized by fright.”
To make matters worse, Scammon had two badly damaged boats and no carpenter to repair them. After scveral days, he did manage to outfit the schooner’s boat for whale pursuit, but when the boat approached a slumbering whale the crew, with the exception of the boatheader and the boatsteerer, jumped overboard. One of the men, a bulky army deserter who had boasted of his exploits in the Second Seminole War, landed on the flukes of the whale. The unmasked braggart escaped unharmed as the whale simply settled gently under the water, “thereby ridding itself of the human parasite,” Scammon sarcastically remarked.
“Our situation was both singular and trying,” the Captain later wrote. “The vessel lay in perfect security in smooth water; and the objects of pursuit, which had been so anxiously sought, were now in countless numbers about us.” The Boston was floating on a treasure trove that defied exploitation. What was clearly needed was a technique for catching the devilfish without endangering either whaleboats or men.