- 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
Scammon was equal to the occasion. A few days later, lie launched his remaining boat on a special mission that transformed whale hunting into carefree slaughter. The crew carefully hugged the shallow shore line, out of reach of the whales, and finally anchored inshore where the lagoon narrowed into a neck of deep water. When a whale surfaced to spout in this narrow passage, a man in the boat stood up and aimed a stubby bomblance gun that fired a projectile designed to pierce the whale’s blubber and timed to detonate inside its lungs. The second time the whale emerged, the man took careful aim and fired; the color of the whale’s spout turned from white to crimson. The gunner followed up with direct hits on two more passing whales.
Such marksmanship would have been regarded as futile at sea. A “bombed” whale would have to be quickly made fast to the boat; otherwise, it would sink or eventually float to the surface out of sight. But Scammon was confident that the enclosed lagoon would contain the bombed whales. One of the whales was secured instantly. The following day, a lookout climbed the schooner’s rigging and spied the other two carcasses floating near the head of the lagoon, buoyed up by gases generated through the decomposition of their blubbery hulls. Scammon was no longer pursuing whales; he was ambushing them.
Thus, in one stroke Scammon had discovered a prime breeding ground of the gray whale and had devised a way of rendering the ferocious mammal defenseless. The ensuing carnage kept the Boston ’s try-pots bubbling, smoking, and stinking through the night. All the oil barrels were soon filled, and dead whales still ringed the ship. An aftercabin was converted into a bread locker, freeing bread casks for use as oil barrels. When these were filled, deck pots, coolers, and mincing tubs were pressed into service and finally the try-pots themselves were filled and capped. Scammon and a delighted crew, some of whose limbs were still mending, sailed back to San Francisco “with the vessel so deeply laden that her scuppers were washed by the rippling tide.”
The low waterline of the Boston soon became the talk of the Pacific whaling fleet, and Scammon, anticipating that other whaling captains would want to share in the source of his “greasy” luck, signed his crew on for another voyage to keep them from disclosing the lagoon’s location. But when Scammon, now in command of the Ocean Bird , left San Francisco to rendezvous with the grays the following season, a fleet of nine vessels, capable of lowering thirty boats, dropped into his wake. The men on these vessels, naturally enough, named the lagoon after the man who had discovered and exploited it. It is called Scammon Lagoon to this day.
Mass whaling transformed the lagoon into a frantic marine slaughterhouse. To Scammon, “the scene of slaughter was exceedingly picturesque and unusually exciting.” Bomb-lance guns crackled “like musketry” and the foamy thrashing of bombed whales resembled an “aquatic battle scene.” Bustling boat crews knitted shut the giant lips of dead whales and towed the bloated corpses to their ships and the try-pots, whose stinking smoke spiralled into the desert sky.
The influx of whalers resulted in further refinements of lagoon-whaling techniques. Whale calves, until then dangerous nuisances, became deadly lures. At low tide, a boat would chase a stray calf into shallow water; soon the anxious mother would appear to retrieve her calf, only to become stranded. Once the mother had become exhausted by frantic efforts to extricate herself, the whaling boat returned for the kill. Sometimes the harpooner would step out of the boat, wade over to his giant quarry, and plunge the harpoon home.
Lagoon whaling made for an uncommon sociality in a business that was, and still is, marked by isolation. Rival crews engaged in daily gams; as the sailors conversed in a babble of Portuguese, Kanaka, and English, wives of whaling captains exchanged social visits whenever a boat was free to transport them. But the close quarters that made this pleasant intimacy possible often led to frayed tempers when it came to catching whales. Some whalers persisted in chasing the grays and making them fast. This open-sea technique soon became a comedy in the lagoon, for struck whales ran off in all directions, crossing lines and colliding with boats and even with one another. Amidst curses in all languages, tangled lines had to be cut, and competing boat crews continually exchanged threats. From the deck of the Ocean Bird , Scammon watched one boat, bearing down on its harpooned whale, threatening to cross the line of another.
“That won’t do! I struck my whale first,” cried out an anxious voice in the second boat. “Cut that line or I’ll put a bomb through you.”
The mate in the first boat responded heartily, “Shoot and be damned! I won’t let go this line till we get t’other side of Jordan.”
The industrious slaughter often continued through the night. In the darkness, white water flashed as whales writhed under the pricks of countless harpoons. Disembodied voices sounded sharp commands across the night. In one instance, Scammon heard a worried captain issue a cut-loose order to his bonus mate. “I’ve killed the bloody greek seven times but he won’t turn up,” a baffled voice responded. “He’s got more lives than a Kilkenny cat.” A burst of cheers moments later indicated to the anchored whale fleet that the stubborn whale had finally turned up.