- 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
Due mainly to Scammon’s new hunting techniques and his profitable use of them, gray whaling was soon prosecuted just as intensively in other lagoons, small and large, along the Baja California coastline. In addition, eleven whaling stations along the California coastline bushwacked grays en route to their breeding grounds. The deserts that flanked the lagoons effectively discouraged desertion among the crews, a serious problem in whaling waters olf inviting tropical islands. The turtles, fish, and waterfowl that thrived in the lagoons provided a varied diet. Drinking water was a problem at first, but a running spring was soon discovered on the offshore island of Cedros. Whaling, ordinarily dangerous and lonely, had been reduced to a fairly safe and sociable occupation. Each January and February, billowing sails decorated with large crosses, cannonballs, stars, or crescents turned the Baja coastline into a maritime carnival of color and confusion.
Such commercial aggression could have but one result. By 1861, lour years alter Scammon first sailed into his lagoon and almost lost his whaling boats, gray whaling was 110 longer economical. There were too few grays left. During these bloody years Scammon Lagoon alone yielded an estimated 22,250 barrels of oil. Altogether, lagoon whaling accounted for an estimated 10,800 whales, not including the calves who endlessly circled the ships where they had last seen their mothers until starvation or killer whales made an end of them. Lagoon whaling- ended with the collapse of the New England whaling industry. During the Civil War, the fleet was decimated by Confederate raiders, one of which, the cruiser Shenandoah , actually destroyed the entire Arctic fleet alter hostilities had officially ended (see “Last of the Rebel Raiders” in the December, 1958, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). The whaling industry might have recovered from the war had it not been for the discovery in 1859 of a thick black liquid oozing out of the ground in Pennsylvania. Petroleum soon took over the chore of lighting the world.
Most whalers forgot about the gray whales. But not Charles Scammon. Even as his adventurous instincts had delighted in recording the color and excitement of lagoon whaling, the reflective side of his nature had been fascinated with the whales themselves. At the same time lie had been ordering his harpooners to bomb the whales and his (tensers to strip the blubber, Scammon was also measuring the girth of dead whales, inspecting the contents of their stomachs, and executing precise drawings of their conformations. The Captain jotted down his detailed observations alongside log entries that recorded the number of whales struck and barrels filled.
By the time lagoon whaling was obsolete, Scammon was contemplating a project no whaler or scientist in America had ever attempted—a comprehensive natural history of whales. That he was a self-educated mammalogist and writer dealing with a subject that had only limited appeal to prospective publishers did not discourage Scammon, but he did have to find a means of supporting his family while he pursued his writing. Granted a commission as a captain in the U.S. Revenue Marine Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), the ex-whaling captain began chasing smugglers and rescuing ships in distress. His off-duty hours lie spent collating his own observations and statistics on whales, as well as the information he gleaned from extensive correspondence with whaling captains in the United States and around the world. Several years after lie had first followed the grays, a map-charting mission took him back to the Baja coast, where lie gazed with a mixture of pity and pride at Scammon Lagoon. “The decayed carcasses and bleaching bones strewed along the shores,” he wrote, “give evidence of the havoc made by the most enterprising and energetic class of seamen that sailed under our national flag.”
Scammon first published his scientific observations in article form in the Overland Monthly , a San Francisco magazine. Writing in a simple, direct, relaxed style (“Indeed,” he wrote concerning the polygamous habits of whales, “much of the Turkish nature is observed”), Scammon began attracting scholarly as well as popular attention. Professor Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian Institution singled out Scammon’s studies in one of the institution’s annual reports to Congress. “Too much cannot be said in praise of gentlemen like Captain Scammon,” Baird announced. The National Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia put its official imprimatur on his reputation by electing the whaler-turnedmammalogist a member. On a visit to San Francisco, one of America’s foremost scientists, Louis Agassiz, inspected the drawings that Scammon was preparing for his book. “It is the first time I have seen the whale properly exhibited on paper,” declared Agassiz.
The costs involved in the lithographic reproduction of the scientific drawings made it difficult to find a publisher, but Scammon finally convinced John Carmany of the Overland Monthly to underwrite the printing expenses. In 1874 his magnum opus appeared, bearing the mammoth title The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America; Together with an Account of the American Whale-fishery .