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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
This 317-page volume, replete with more than seventy handsome illustrations, was offered at a subscription price of ten dollars. There were few takers. “All attempts to sell your book have failed me,” Carmany informed Scammon three years later. But the book’s financial failure in no way obscured the favorable reception it received from the scientific community; indeed, Marine Mammals is today a valuable and honorable item in university rare-book collections as well as a popular reference volume for mammalogists. Perhaps the most enduring assessment of his work appeared in Scammon’s obituary in 1911, when Science magazine declared that his book was “the most important contribution to the life history of marine mammals ever published and will remain a worthy monument to his memory.”
What has continued to change, however, is the condition of the gray whale itself. In his pioneer treatise, Scammon expressed gloomy concern about its survival: “Ere long, may it not be that the California gray will be known only as an extinct species of Pacific cetaceans?” After two short revivals of lagoon whaling, Captain Scammon’s prophecy very nearly came true. Originally, it has been estimated, the grays numbered some 30,000; but by 1930, according to one San Diego naturalist, there were “no more than a few dozen.” Fortunately, in 1937 the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling instituted voluntary conservation quotas on whale kills. Recognizing the precarious condition of the grays, the convention accorded the species a special status: henceforth, it was forbidden “to take or kill gray whales except when the meat and products of such whales are to be used exclusively for local consumption by the aborigines.”
Today Scammon Lagoon again teems with gray whales—as many as 2,000 of them—during breeding season. The only hunters who pursue them now are scientists armed with buoy hydrophones and electronic harpoons. But even though the lagoon is considered a unique marine laboratory in which to study the world’s largest creatures, the researchers frequently find themselves frustrated by the same aggressive whale tactics that temporarily confounded Captain Scammon.
One such episode occurred in 1956, when Dr. Paul Dudley White, the famous Boston heart specialist, set out to record the heartbeat of a gray whale. White and his colleagues made elaborate preparations to implant sensitive electrodes under a whale’s skin to transmit the heartbeat by radio back to an electrocardiograph aboard the expedition’s flagship. But before a single “harpoon” could be fired, the party’s boat inadvertently made the same mistake that Scammon’s men had made a century before: it got between a mother and her calf. Flukes flashed, and the craft, listing dangerously with a foot-wide hole in her bottom, barely made it back to base. After the boat had been repaired, another attempt to plant the electrodes was made, but the struck whale, with a mighty lunge, snapped the connecting wire on one dart and swam away with the harpoon gun that had fired the second. The expedition was a failure. It seems that the whales are more of a threat to the scientists than the scientists are to the whales.
The same cannot be said of industry. Exportadora de Sal, a salt refinery licensed by the Mexican government, operates a factory at Scammon Lagoon. Approximately one hundred million gallons of sea water a day are pumped from the lagoon into ponds on the adjacent Vizcaino Desert. After the water has been evaporated by the wind and sun, the salt residue is collected, washed, and then shipped by barge to Cedros, where it is loaded onto ocean-going freighters.
Recently a controversy has raged over the possible effects that increased barge traffic in and out of the lagoon might have on the breeding habits of the grays. Exportadora’s salt-harvesting operations are expected to expand considerably, requiring more and more barge trips to Cedros. Since the bustle of shipping a century ago caused the gray to desert its breeding grounds in San Diego Bay, some scientists are deeply concerned lest the same thing happen in Scammon Lagoon. Others contend that the desalinization operations and industrial pollution might further jeopardize the future of the species. The salt company’s position, naturally, is that the grays have not been affected at all; to substantiate its argument, it points out that the herd in Scammon Lagoon has doubled in size during the decade Exportadora has been in operation.
The final decision is, of course, up to the Mexican government, which has assigned a special team of fishing experts to study the gray’s breeding habits and to determine how they are affected by shipping activity. No decision will be made until this team completes its investigation. It would, however, be ironic if Captain Scammon’s prophecy were fulfilled not because of man’s demand for whale oil but because of his need for a cheap industrial chemical and seasoning for his food.